Soon under surveillance. (Photo by flickr user @tomsaint, used under a Creative Commons Attribution license)

For his entire career in truck driving, Bryan Spoon has tried to move toward being his own boss.

A third-generation trucker, he started driving in the military, which lasted ten years. After leaving the service, he bought his own truck in 2004, and leased it to one company for a while. Then he became independent, picking up jobs on the spot market, hauling loads from as far south as Georgia all the way up to New England and out to Kansas City.

But now, a new federal regulation is making him feel as if that freedom is being taken away. Under final rules published this month, he and more than three million other drivers have until the end of 2017 to buy and install an “electronic logging device” that connects to his engine and broadcasts his speed and location to the shipper, replacing the log sheet that truckers have kept for decades.  

“I run a safe, compliant business. I never had any issues with hours of service. So what does the government get out of monitoring me?” Spoon says. The government won’t actually be looking over his shoulder day-to-day, but could ask for the records if it suspects he’s violated rules that govern the hours he can spend on the road. He’s more worried about shipping companies tracking his every move.

“These ELDs are going to allow the company to say, 'why are you stopping?’” Spoon says. He thinks that could be the final straw for truckers who’ve grown more impatient with each new restriction — and indeed, some polling shows that the mandate is broadly unpopular, since it represents a loss of control. “The industry is going to lose a whole section of very safe drivers who could work for a few more years and are just going to call it quits.”

Spoon isn’t installing the electronic logs just yet, though. The day after the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration published the new rule, on Dec. 11, the Owner Operator Independent Driver Association petitioned for review by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. It worked the last time around: In 2012, courts vacated the agency’s first attempt at a rule, saying it hadn’t done enough to prevent harassment of drivers.

The new regulation comes with stronger protections against coercion and harassment, allowing drivers to report any attempts by trucking companies to make them spend more time on the road than is allowed. Still, the drivers association says pressure can come in more subtle forms that wouldn’t necessarily constitute a violation.

“The technology is used simply to push drivers. You can call that harassment or coercion, but it is absolutely the opposite of safety,” says Todd Spencer, the association’s executive vice president. “They will certainly imply that ‘you’re creating a very, very bad situation for us, and if you don’t get from A to B to C, there might not be a load waiting for you when you get there.’"

If it sticks, the mandate will have been a long time in coming — and the independent drivers are basically the only ones who have opposed it. Highway safety advocates and the American Trucking Associations, which represents many large trucking companies that have already adopted electronic monitoring, say the mandate will enhance compliance with hours-of-service rules by preventing drivers from falsifying their log books. That had been a widespread practice in the past, as truckers might fudge times slightly to avoid having to spend an extra night somewhere if they had reached their hours limit.

“The industry turned a blind eye to all that. In today’s environment, there is no blind eye.”

— Trucking consultant David Roush

“The industry turned a blind eye to all that. In today’s environment, there is no blind eye,” says David Roush, president of a consulting firm called KSM Transportation Advisors. Plus, from the company’s standpoint, knowing what drivers are up to allows them to maximize the efficiency of each trip. “By having transparency into what the true situation is, companies are more able to ensure time that the driver is spending is productive, and not just sitting around,” Roush says.

Meanwhile, the new mandate creates a new market opportunity for companies that manufacture the devices and software that crunches the mountains of data they will create. Keeptruckin, a startup with seed funding from Google Ventures that offers a free app for drivers to track their hours, is testing a hardware device that hooks into the truck’s motor to comply with the new rule.

“Regulation is looked at in a negative way by Silicon Valley,” says Shoaib Makani, Keeptruckin’s CEO. “But we view it as incredibly positive, as an accelerant.”

Makani even thinks that having access to data could empower drivers, by allowing them to demand compensation for the time they spend waiting to deliver a load, for example. But that’s far from inevitable — it’s currently not standard practice for truckers to be paid for anything other than the miles they’ve traveled. They’re even carved out of federal labor laws that entitle most workers to overtime pay.

That’s why Karen Levy, a post-doctoral fellow at New York University’s Information Law Institute who has extensively studied electronic monitoring of drivers, thinks the devices won’t solve the fundamental problems that have made life difficult for truckers. “There is widespread feeling that ELDs crack down on drivers while missing a lot of what really drives fatigue and unsafe behavior,” she says, mentioning stressors like the difficulty of finding parking, and the incentive to spend as much time on the road as possible.

"It's basically a similar dynamic as what's occurring throughout all kinds of low-wage labor contexts,” Levy says. “Tech enables much more granular and real-time supervision in the name of productivity, which makes those jobs less livable for workers."

[Trucking used to be a ticket to the middle class. Now it's just another low-wage job.]

And companies do have an interest in not ticking off drivers too much. The new mandate comes at a time when the trucking industry is voicing alarm at what it calls a potentially catastrophic driver shortage, projecting that there will be 174,000 fewer drivers than are needed by 2024. Companies are offering higher salaries and better benefits to retain drivers, but analysts warn that the temptation to use monitoring to maximize efficiency could make the profession less appealing.

“Part of the problem is that we have a mentality out there that if we’re going to be cost competitive, we have to micromanage the driver. We want he or she to be in the right hand lane doing 62 miles an hour in a speed-governed truck while we’re monitoring his or her fuel efficiency,” said John Larkin, head of Stifel Transportation Research, on a conference call with investors. "This is not the kind of job that the swashbuckling truck drivers of years gone past would have any interest in, and that’s part of what makes it so difficult.”

That’s essentially what Bryan Spoon is worried about. "I wouldn’t recommend anybody getting into this industry,” he says. So why hasn’t he left?

Well, he might have — driving a truck isn’t much of a living, and keeps him away from his family for weeks at a time. But there aren’t a lot of other jobs in his tiny hometown of Grandy, N.C., and this one at least keeps food on the table back at home.

“I think about it almost every day,” says Spoon, of quitting. “But I’ve been in it a long time, and maybe it’s a little pride in not wanting to give in.”