Haulin' Data: How Trucking Became the Frontier of Work Surveillance

Every rig driver in America will soon be tracked by an electronic recorder. Proponents claim it will make the roads safer, but some wonder what else the data could be used for.
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All American truckers will soon transmit a swarm of data on their performance (Reuters/The Noun Project/Alexis Madrigal).

Because his truck is fitted with a refrigerator unit, Dick Pingel often hauls food: usually sausage or cheese, products long associated with his home state, Wisconsin. He’s been a professional trucker for 30 years, covered over three and a half million miles, and never had a single chargeable accident.

“One of the reasons that most of us came out here, myself included,” he explains, “was because of the independence. After the Vietnam War, a lot of vets came out here. It was probably because they didn’t want somebody peering over their shoulder all the time.”

But Pingel, along with more than three million of his fellow truckers in the United States, is facing a regulatory upheaval which will cost his industry an estimated $2 billion and fundamentally change the way he does his job. Over the next few years, it will become mandatory, by law, for all American truckers to carry a tracking device, an electronic on-board recorder (EOBR), in their vehicle. And Pingel isn’t happy about it.

Truckers are on the forefront of workplace surveillance. With the availability of cheap sensors and hypercompetitive companies seeking to maximize their profits, any human action done on the clock may become subject to increased scrutiny and what will probably be called optimization. If you want to see the future of work, take a look at IBM’s efforts around call center workers or the battle over electronic armbands at Tesco in Ireland. It’s not that data hasn’t always been used in corporate decisionmaking, it’s that it’s possible to capture so much more now. With more data, comes more control.

There are hundreds of different types of EOBR (or ELD), and they vary greatly in terms of cost and capability. In order to comply with the incoming federal mandate, however, they all have to track when a truck’s engine is running, record its duty status and ensure that drivers aren’t working for more than 14 consecutive hours, including a maximum of 11 actual driving hours within that window.

The idea is to make “Hours of Service” log-keeping, which drivers are already required to do manually, more accurate. It’s also an attempt to reduce crashes. A 2006 government survey suggested that around 13% of accidents are fatigue-related and there’s no doubt that road haulage is a dangerous industry. In fact, it’s one of the most dangerous in America.

Preliminary figures from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics show that in 2011, 656 Americans died while operating tractor-trailers or heavy trucks. Thousands more other drivers, passengers and pedestrians are killed in accidents involving large professional vehicles every year.

For Pingel, though, the EOBR won’t provide any obvious benefits. “They’re forcing me to put something in that’s not gonna help me any,” he says. “And they keep saying, ‘Well, it saves you time…’ You know, I can do a lot. I can write up a log book in the same amount of time that it takes me to program what I’m doing into the EOBR.”

He’s been testing one model in preparation for the mandate coming into force. For one thing, he says the graphical display, which gradually turns from green to red as he uses up his allowed time on the road, creates an unnecessary sense of urgency that makes the last hour of his run feel more stressful than it did before.

Pingel has specifically chosen his EOBR for its simplicity and low cost to try and minimise its impact on him. However, there are many competing devices on the market which can gather much more detailed information on speed, engine revving, hard-braking and fuel efficiency.

This data is often centrally monitored by carrier control rooms in real time. Qualcomm, perhaps the most established manufacturer of such systems, offers an exhaustive suite of analytical tools and services through their EOBR “platforms”. With the prospect of a mandate on the horizon, many other tech firms have seized on the opportunity to profit. Companies like XRS have designed smartphone apps to comply with federal regulations and provide “360-degree, real-time information at a truly affordable price.”

A Qualcomm EOBR display (Wikimedia).

It’s not an entirely new concept. Rather, it’s a 21st Century version of devices like the 1911 Jones Recorder. An early example of a tachograph designed for use in road vehicles, the Jones Recorder was heavily marketed across Europe and America in newspaper and magazine advertisements. These claimed that business owners who relied on a fleet of delivery vehicles would, for the first time, be able to accurately track the number of stops drivers made, check what speed they had travelled at and know how many miles they covered. It was, boasted the tagline, “A constant check on the driver.”

Among truckers, EOBRs are sometimes derided as “baby sitters” and there is some resentment towards the growing emphasis on data-informed hiring practices within the industry. Many are aware that a record which shows a trucker is slightly harder on fuel thanks to the way he revs, idles, and brakes could mean that he won’t get a job in an increasingly competitive market. The nominal rationale may be to increase safety, but as Pingel puts it, “it’s all turned into bottom line.”

Fears that trucking companies could misuse their expanded awareness of where their drivers are and what they are doing have already been expressed in court. In 2011, the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), of which Pingel is a long-term member, launched a lawsuit against the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the authority responsible for drafting the rule.

OOIDA complained that there was a risk of driver harassment, in which carriers, cognizant that a trucker is running out of time to complete his delivery, might goad him or her into getting back on the road when it’s not safe to do so. Fatigue, inclement weather, or traffic problems could all be ignored for the sake of the time sheet.

For Todd Spencer, Executive Vice President of OOIDA, it was a clear threat to driver safety. “These are the kinds of decisions that experienced, professional drivers have to make every day,” he comments. “These are safety decisions. Technology can’t take the place of sound judgement.”

With a strong legal case and testimonies from truckers who claimed that this had already happened to them, OOIDA won their suit and the mandate was vacated for redrafting. The latest version still hasn’t been authorised and published, though it’s expected before the end of the year. Most observers believe the final rule will be enforceable on American highways by 2015. Truckers who haven’t yet implemented an EOBR are therefore living in the twilight of an era when driving without one can be described as legal.

But in many areas, the road haulage industry has already been modernising itself through such technology. Danny Knapp of Illinois has had a commercial driver’s license since 1998. Over the years he’s hauled livestock, liquid commodities like fertiliser and produce such as corn. He says that trucking has never had an especially positive public image but that truckers, once portrayed as cowboys in the 1978 Sam Peckinpah film Convoy, have long been trying to clean up their image.

“Most drivers want to be safe,” he explains. “The outlaw types used to be cool, even heroes, but now we kind of alienate them.” He recalls hearing stories about “truckers’ tooth-picks” – tooth-picks dipped in liquid speed and chewed.

But could truckers regain their edginess by evolving into a new breed of hacker? Traditionally, log book “fudging”, where duty records were falsified in some way, was understood to be common. It was at least prevalent enough to be romanticised in popular songs like Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road,” which cheerfully references several other stereotypical trucking misdemeanours.

Some old habits die hard, according to Karen Levy, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Princeton. Levy has been researching the impact of EOBRs in the trucking industry and says that many drivers are already experimenting with hacks and methods of tampering.

“Truckers are a particularly savvy and motivated bunch,” she says. “Some drivers have figured out how to temporarily disconnect certain EOBR models from the truck, or to otherwise block their signals so they can't record data. Another approach is to drive using multiple driver ID numbers which are sometimes called ‘ghost logs.’”

There’s even a YouTube video showing how an EOBR can be hacked to play games, and Danny Knapp, although he’s not tried it himself, says he can imagine a future where shady individuals at truck stops offer to tamper with on-board recorders for a small fee, just like they offer to remove speed limiters and increase horsepower today.

A hacked Qualcomm system playing solitaire (YouTube/Scooby Tulsa).

Companies, too, might have an incentive to surreptitiously add “extra” hours to a driver’s electronic log so they can complete a delivery without running out of time. Dick Pingel says he’s heard stories like this already from drivers he’s met on the job.

Nevertheless, the trucking industry is gradually falling into line with the idea of mandated electronic recorders. Many of the bigger carriers have made a vigorous effort to adapt early and absorb the cost of implementing EOBRs across their fleet as soon as possible. Thomas Scollard, Vice President of Dedicated Contract Carriage Services for Penske Logistics confirms that the devices have improved planning and saved on huge amounts of paperwork.

As many might suspect, Penske’s stature has not been irrelevant here. “We’re fortunate that, the size we are, we can look at something like this, put some resources against it and say, OK, how do we make this work for us in a positive way?” explains Scollard.

But there are plenty of independents who see new technology as an opportunity too. Cliff Downing, of Iowa, is one of them. Like Dick Pingel, he’s been on the road for three decades, but unlike Pingel, he’s embraced the EOBR with gusto, and even claims that it’s benefitted him financially.

“My gross revenues have been up year over year each year since using electronic logs,” he says. “Now is it due to electronic logs? Not the machine itself, it’s the efficiency that’s been forced onto us by the machine.”

A trucker who, by his own account has, “pulled just about everything there is to pull,” Downing provides several arguments about making the most of the technology at his disposal. For example, he carefully modified his brand new truck with a tuned-up, slightly older engine, to guarantee that it would run at almost two gallons more to the mile than the industry average, saving him thousands of dollars in fuel each year.

Like his vehicle, Downing has streamlined his business over the years. He likes to operate within a specific 5-600 mile radius and relies on a list of reliable customers who ship loads such as bulk oatmeal and coiled steel for use in manufacturing.

He says people who complain about the EOBR mandate are simply expressing an innate but unhelpful resistance to change. After all, in Europe, simpler electronic tachographs have been mandatory since the 1970s. And for him, the digital recorder has been a boon. “If I need a log for an officer alongside the road, it’s kind of like… how do ya want it? Do you want me to fax it to you? Here, I can show you on my smartphone! Oh hey, I can open up my Macbook Air, you can look at it on my laptop,” he explains. “You take your pick Mr Cop, I’ll show you any way you want.”

Downing, who has degrees in Mathematics and Computer Science from the University of Alaska, perhaps gets some of his resilience from the military, being a veteran who saw action in Korea and the evacuation of Vietnam.

Later, he quit working for the government because he longed for greater independence. “I worked better in a ‘nobody-hassling-me’ kind of environment,” he says, before describing his subsequent life as an “ice road trucker” in Alaska, where existence was “frontiersy” and where planning for harsh conditions and break-down was something your life depended on.

The same strategic planning now manifests itself in Downing’s adoption of the EOBR. “I modified my operation to make it work,” he says. “As much as the libertarian in me says no to mandates, they’re coming. You might as well just wake up, face it, and deal with it.”

Trucking is a very big industry, with a diverse range of people in it. Some of them distrust the rise of electronic logging while others have seized upon it. None of the truckers I interviewed discounted the importance of autonomy, however. When I asked Danny Knapp why he liked the job he said this: “It’s just a unique feeling to get on the interstate, riding on top of this 80,000 pound machine and driving 65 miles an hour. When I do it I feel calm and I feel free. I can’t explain it any further than that.

“Maybe it’s something about leaving. You know, we’re always leaving some place. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s a very free feeling to me.”

Technology might disrupt that, but then again it might not. Knapp, for one, is not opposed to the mandate. Trucking, as well as being big, is also a competitive industry and businesses are constantly looking for ways of understanding their operations in more detail.

Today, OOIDA says it is not currently planning any further legal challenges against the FMCSA, whose rulemaking is nearly complete. Everything now falls to the truckers. As technology encroaches they seem determined, one way or another, to retain their professional independence, the spirit of the open road.
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Chris Baraniuk writes about cultural history, mass media, and the social impact of technology. His website is themachinestarts.com. He is based in London, England.

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