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.
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.”

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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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