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From road cowboys to robots: Truckers are wary of autonomous rigs

This rig was parked in a long line of rigs by truckers who needed some downtime in Hagerstown, Md. (Photos by Fredrick Kunkle/The Washington Post)

Danny Spell thinks the idea that a robot will be driving his 18-wheeler one of these days is hogwash.

“I been listening to a lot of crap on the truckers’ channel,” Spell, 49, said, after pulling in to refuel his big rig at a Pilot truck stop near the crossroads of Interstates 70 and 81 in Hagerstown, Md. “I think that if the government approves it, they’re going to get a lot of people killed.”

Spell, who lives in Clinton, N.C., was in a hurry but, also, a surprisingly good mood considering he had just spent an hour or more in Capital Beltway traffic.  Chained to his trailer were huge rolls of artificial turf that had been stripped from a playing field in Chantilly, Va., and were headed to a recycling firm in Pennsylvania.

He’s not the only skeptic when it comes to the idea of transforming the trucking industry with automation. He doubts that self-driving technology will ever get to the point that truckers become unnecessary.

“Anything that’s run by a computer is going to get messed up,” Spell said Thursday. “They don’t have no bulletproof software.”

What worries him more these days is the coming of electronic logbooks.  The increased level of monitoring — which must be implemented by the end of the year — is another headache on top of the usual road hazards he faces out there, such as a “bunch of rude drivers.”

“Like right now, they don’t understand my truck is probably weighing 77,000 pounds and how I could crush them because they’re acting like an idiot,” Spell said.

Truckers are by turns dismissive and wary of the technology revolution that might alter their role or even remove them from the cab someday. A recent report by the U.S. Energy Information Administration says autonomous vehicles will transform the trucking industry before self-driving vehicles move into the consumer market, largely because there are bigger financial incentives to save on labor and other costs, such as fuel.

Autonomous trucks have already appeared on the road in limited numbers, largely as demonstrations. But analysts foresee the technology getting to the point that large caravans of self-driving trucks could be running the highways someday. Truckers would work more like airline pilots, maneuvering big rigs onto the highway and then flipping on the autopilot for most of the trip, taking over again only when they have to get off the main route.

But most analysts also agree that the transformation will occur step by step, with driver-assisted trucks arriving long before driverless trucks. Chris Spear, president and chief executive of the American Trucking Associations, said fully autonomous truck fleets are still decades away, even though the framework for assisted driving is starting to emerge.

“We fully believe drivers have a long-term place in our industry,” Spear said. “You’re still going to need them in the cab to do the pickups, to do the deliveries, to navigate the cityscapes. As long as you have other drivers driving cars, you’re going to need drivers in trucks.”

That’s welcome news for truckers, even if for most of them the romance of the open road was always a bit of a put-on. The lonesome cowboy, barreling down the freeway to the rhythm of the wheels and country music, staying a step ahead of state highway patrols and speed traps with the CB radio, and finding some love at the next truck stop with friendly waitresses, a piece of pie and a cup of joe — that person exists, or used to.

But the truth is also more mundane and, occasionally, dark: For all the camaraderie of truckers, most are solitary souls who find themselves bored to death on the endless interstate highways. Riding the rigs means fighting sleep and strained eyes; riding out cramps and kidney-punishing roads; occasionally getting jacked up on stimulants or running tighter-than-ever schedules to beat the logbooks; and feeling not just lonesome but lonely. And of course there are all those four-wheelers out there speeding, tailgating, cutting in front, flipping the bird or not paying attention to anything except their smartphones. Now robots.

In interviews, several truckers expressed concern that theirs will be the next industry disrupted by job-killing technology. More than 1.7 million people make their living driving heavy trucks or tractor-trailers. In 2016, the average salary for a trucker was $41,340 a year, which was better than bus and taxi drivers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. For many, trucking offered a path up.

Jaswinder Singh Deol, 37, an Indian immigrant who lives in Easton, Pa., said long-haul trucking was a big improvement over his first career in the United States: driving taxis in New York City.

“I like the job,” he said after 10 years on the road. Although he said he doubts that technology will make drivers superfluous, he also owns his trucking company. So allowing a machine to do the driving wouldn’t necessarily take him out of the picture.

Robots are a worry for trucker Chris Rendell, too, but not his biggest one.

“I don’t really see it as a threat to people’s jobs because there’s always going to have to be someone behind the wheel,” Rendell said.

Rendell, 25, of Orchard Park, N.Y., was on the way to Colorado with a load of fertilizer he picked up in Delaware, when he had to pull off the road. The air conditioning had conked out, so he rolled into the South Mountain rest area to cool off. He had been on the road for about a month, and he was already hankering to get back home to his wife — and former co-pilot — Tiffany, and their 4-month-old son, Liam.

After being on the road for five years, he makes about $70,000 a year. That was enough to let him buy a house — in cash. Driving has been good to him, one of the few decent gigs he could find after quitting high school.

“There’s a lot of people out here in the same situation as me,” Rendell said.

Allen Barker is a trucker who also lines up his runs so that he’s generally home on weekends. He knows the downside of driving, like those trips when he was pushing himself so hard he barely slept.

“It will consume you,” Barker said. He’s also been so keyed up after driving that he gets a dose of what he called “cab dementia” — the sensation that even when he’s stopped, the rig is still moving. He’s been known to touch the brakes extra hard at an intersection. And he’s seen the chivalry of the road give way to selfishness and high-speed anarchy.

“I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years,” Barker, 50, of Parkersburg, W.Va. said. “When I was a kid and my dad was driving — I mean, there was courtesy. If a guy was broke down on the side of the road, they’d pull over and say, ‘Hey, you know, what’s going on?’ Nowadays, they just give you the finger and go on.”

Four-wheelers especially seem oblivious to the dangers around them, he said. Just that morning, he had a close call with a distracted driver who was talking on a cellphone.

“You got these cars don’t give a dang about you,” he said.

But he still loves what he does and loves the freedom of the highway.

“I got eight kids. It’s good to be home. But it’s good to get away,” Barker said. “Sometimes you need to get away, to think about things. I love the road.”

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