The following is a conversation with Steve Vasile,
formerly a truck driver and now a sociologist
at the University of Pennsylvania
who studies freight transportation.
His first book, The Big Rig,
Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream,
explains how long haul trucking
went from being one of the best blue collar jobs
to one of the toughest.
His current ongoing book project,
Driverless, Autonomous Trucks
and the Future of the American Trucker,
explores self driving trucks
and their potential impacts on labor and on society.
This is the Lex Friedman podcast.
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And now, here’s my conversation with Steve Vasile.
You wrote a book about trucking
called The Big Rig, Trucking and the Decline
of the American Dream,
and you’re currently working on a book
about autonomous trucking called Driverless,
Autonomous Trucks and the Future of the American Trucker.
I have to bring up some Johnny Cash to you
because I was just listening to this song.
He has a ton of songs about trucking,
but one of them I was just listening to,
it’s called All I Do is Drive,
where he’s talking to an old truck driver.
It goes, I asked them if those trucking songs
tell about a life like his.
He said, if you want to know the truth about it,
here’s the way it is.
All I do is drive, drive, drive,
try to stay alive, that’s the chorus,
and keep my mind on my load,
keep my eye upon the road.
I got nothing in common with any man
who’s home every day at five.
All I do is drive, drive, drive,
drive, drive, drive, drive.
So I got to ask you,
same thing that he asked the trucker.
You worked as a trucker for six months
while working on the previous book.
What’s it like to be a truck driver?
I think that captures it.
It really does.
Can you take me through the whole experience,
what it takes to become a trucker,
what actual day to day life was on day one,
week one, and then over time how that changed?
Well, the book is really about how that changed over time.
So my experience, and I’m an ethnographer, right?
So I go in, I live with people,
I work with people, I talk to them,
try to understand their world.
Ethnographer, by the way, what is that?
The science and art of capturing the spirit of a people?
Yeah, life ways.
I think that would be a good way to capture it,
try to understand what makes them unique as a society,
maybe as a subculture, what kind of makes them tick,
that might be different than the way you and I are wired.
And really sort of thickly describe it
would be at least one component of it.
That’s sort of the basic essential.
And then for me, I want to exercise what C. Wright Mills
called the sociological imagination,
which is to put that individual biography
into the long historical sweep of humanity,
if at all possible.
My goals are typically more modest than C. Wright Mills’s.
And to then put that biography in the larger social structure
to try to understand that person’s life
and the way they see the world,
their decisions in light of their interests
relative to others and conflict and power
and all these things that I find interesting.
And conflict and power.
In the context of society and in the context of history.
And the small tangent, what does it take to do that,
to capture this particular group, the spirit, the music,
the full landscape of experiences
that a particular group goes through
in the context of everything else?
You only have a limited amount of time
and you come to the table probably with preconceived notions
that are then quickly destroyed, all that whole process.
So I don’t know if it’s more art or science,
but what does it take to be great at this?
I do think my first book was a success
relative to my goals of trying to really get at the heart
of sort of the central issues
and the lives being led by people.
If I have a resource, a talent,
it’s that I’m a good listener.
I can talk with anybody.
My wife loves to remark on this
that I can sort of sit down with anyone.
I think I learned that from my dad who worked at a factory
and actually had a lot of truckers go through
the gate that he operated.
And he always had a story, a joke for everybody,
kind of got to know everyone individually.
And he just taught me that essentially
everyone has something to teach you.
And I try to embody that.
Like that’s the rule is for me is every single person
I interact with can teach me something.
I gotta ask you, I’m sorry to interrupt
because I’m clearly of the two of us, the poorer listener.
I think you’re a great listener.
I’ve been listening to the podcast.
I think you’re a great listener.
I really appreciate that.
You’ve done a large number of interviews,
like you said, of truckers for this book.
I’m just curious, what are some lessons you’ve learned
about what it takes to listen to a person enough,
maybe guide the conversation enough
to get to the core of the person, the idea,
again, the ethnographer goal to get to the core?
Yeah, I think it doesn’t happen in the moment, right?
So I’m a ruminator.
I just sit with the data for years.
I sat with the trucking data for almost 10 full years
and just thought about the problems and the questions
using everything that I possibly could.
And so in the moment, my ideal interview is I open up
and I say, tell me about your life as a trucker.
And they never shut up.
And they keep telling me the things that I’m interested in.
Now, it never works out that way
because they don’t know what you’re interested in, right?
And so a lot of it is the, as you know,
I think you’re a great interviewer, prep, right?
So you try to get to know a little bit about the person
and sort of understand kind of the central questions
you’re interested in that they can help you explore.
And so I’ve done hundreds of interviews with truck drivers
at this point and I should really go back
and read the original ones.
They were probably terrible.
What’s the process like?
You’re sitting down, do you have an audio recorder
and also taking notes or do you do no audio, just notes or?
Yeah, audio recorder and social scientists
always have to struggle with sampling, right?
Like who do you interview?
Where do you find them?
How do you recruit them?
I just happened to have a sort of natural place to go
that gave me essentially the population
that I was interested in.
So all these long haul truck drivers that I was interested in
they have to stop and get fuel
and get services at truck stops.
So I picked a truck stop at the juncture
of a couple of major interstates,
went into the lounge that drivers have to walk through
with my clipboard and everybody who came through,
I said, hey, are you on break?
And that was sort of the first criteria was,
do you have time, right?
And if they said, yes, I said,
I’d say, I’m a graduate student at Indiana University.
I’m doing a study,
trying to understand more about truck drivers.
Will you sit down with me?
And I think the first,
I think I probably asked like 104 or 103 people
to get the first 100 interviews.
That’s pretty good odds.
It’s amazing, right?
For any response rate like that for interviewing,
these are people who sat down and gave me an hour
or sometimes more of their time,
just randomly at a truck stop.
And it just tells you something about like,
truckers have something to say.
They’re alone a lot.
And so I had to figure out how to kind of
turn the spigot on, you know?
And I got pretty good at it, I think, yeah.
So they have good stories to tell
and they have an active life in the mind
because they spend so much time on the road
just basically thinking.
Yeah, there’s a lot of reflection,
a lot of struggles, you know?
And they take different forms.
One of the things that they talk about
is the impact on their families.
They say truckers have the same rate of divorce
as everybody else.
And that’s because trucking saves so many marriages
because you’re not around and ruins so many.
And so it ends up being a wash.
So I had this experience.
I met another person and he recognized me from a podcast.
And he said, you know, I’m a fan of yours
and a fan of Joe Rogan, but you guys never talk.
You always talk to people with Nobel Prizes.
You always talk to these kinds of people.
You never talk to us regular folk.
And that guy really stuck with me.
First of all, the idea of regular folk is a silly notion.
I think people that win Nobel Prizes
are often more boring than the people, these regular folks
in terms of stories, in terms of richness of experience,
in terms of the ups and downs of life.
And, you know, that really stuck with me
because I set that as a goal for myself
to make sure I talked to regular folk.
And you did just this talking, again, regular folk.
It’s human beings.
All of them have experiences.
If you were to recommend to talk some of these folks
with stories, how would you find them?
Yeah, so I do do this sometimes for journalists
who will come and they want to write about
sort of what’s happening right now in trucking, you know.
And I send them to truck stops.
I say, you know, yeah, there’s a town
called Effingham, Illinois.
And it’s just this place where, you know,
bunch of huge truck stops, tons of trucks
and really nothing else out there.
You know, it’s in the middle of corn country.
And, you know, again, truckers in this, you know,
sadly, I think, you know, the politics of the day,
it’s changing a little bit.
I think there’s a little, the polarization is getting
to the trucking industry in ways that, you know,
maybe we’re seeing in other parts of our social world.
But truckers are generally, you know,
real open sort of friendly folks.
Some of them ultimately like to work alone and be alone.
That’s a relatively small subset, I think.
But all of them are generally, you know,
kind of open, you know, trusting,
willing to have a conversation.
And so, you know, you go to the truck stop
and you go in the lounge and they’re usually,
there’s usually a booth down there
and somebody is sitting at their laptop
or on their phone and willing to strike up a conversation.
You should try that.
You should, you know.
That 100% will try this.
Just again, we’re just going from tangent to tangent.
We’ll return to the main question,
but what do they listen to?
Do they listen to talk radio?
Do they listen to podcasts, audio books?
Do they listen to music?
Do they listen to silence?
Some, I mean, and some still listen to the CB,
which, you know, it’s a ever dwindling group.
They’ll call it the Original Internet Citizens Band.
You know, back in the 70s,
they thought it was going to be the medium of democracy.
And they love to just get on there
and, you know, cruise along one truck after the other
and chat away.
Usually, you know, it’s guys who know each other
from the same company or happen to run into each other.
But other than that, it’s everything under the sun.
You know, and that’s, it’s probably one of the stereotypes
and it’s, I think it was more true in the past, you know,
about the sort of heterogeneity of truck drivers.
They’re a really diverse group now.
You know, there’s definitely a large,
still a large component of rural white guys
who work in the industry,
but there’s a huge growing chunk of the industry
that’s immigrants, people of color, and even some women.
Still huge barriers to women entering it,
but it’s a much more diverse place than most people think.
So let’s return to your journey as a truck driver.
What did it take to become a truck driver?
What were the early days like?
Yeah, so this is, I mean, this is a central part
of the story, right, that I uncovered.
And the good part was that I went in
without knowing what was gonna happen.
So I was able to experience it as a new truck driver would.
It’s one of the important stories in the book
is how that experience is constructed by employers
to sort of, you know, help you think the way
that they would like you to think about the job
and about the industry and about the social relations of it.
So it’s super intimidating.
I say in the book, you know, pretty handy guy,
you know, familiar with tools, machines,
like, you know, comfortable operating stuff,
like from time I was a kid.
The truck was just like a whole nother experience.
I mean, as I think most people think about it,
it’s this big, huge vehicle, right?
It’s really long, it’s 70 feet long,
it can weigh 80,000 pounds.
You know, it does not stop like a car.
It does not turn like a car.
But at least when I started, and this has changed
and it’s part of the technology story of trucking,
the first thing you had to do was learn how to shift it.
And it doesn’t shift like a manual car.
The clutch isn’t synchronized.
So you have to do what’s called double clutch.
And it’s basically the foundational skill
that a truck driver used to have to learn.
So you would, you know, accelerate, say you’re in first gear,
you push in the clutch,
you pull the shifter out of first gear,
you let the clutch out,
and then you let the RPMs of the engine drop an exact amount.
Then you push the clutch back in
and you put it in second gear.
If your timing is off,
those gears aren’t gonna go together.
So if you’re in an intersection,
you’re just gonna get this horrible grinding sound
as you coast, you know, to a dead stop in the,
you know, underneath the stoplight or whatever it is.
So the first thing you have to do is learn to shift it.
And so at least for me and a lot of drivers
who are going to private company CDL schools,
what happens is it’s kind of like a bootcamp.
They ship me three states away from home,
send you a bus ticket and say,
‘‘Hey, we’ll put you up for two weeks.’’
You sit in a classroom,
you sort of learn the theory of shifting,
the theory of kind of how you fill out your log book,
rules of the road, you know, you do that maybe half the day.
And then the other half you’re in this giant parking lot
with one of these old trucks and just like, you know,
destroying what’s left of the thing, you know,
and it’s lurching and belching smoke
and just making horrible noises and like rattling.
I mean, in these things, like there’s a lot of torque.
And so if you do manage to get it into gear,
but the engine’s lugging,
I mean, it can throw you right out of the seat, right?
So it’s this, it’s like, you know, it’s bull,
you’re trying to ride and it’s super intimidating.
And the thing about it is that for everybody there,
it’s almost everybody there, it’s super high stakes.
So trucking has become a job of last resort
for a lot of people.
And so they, you know, they lose a job in manufacturing,
they get too old to do construction any longer, right?
The knees can no longer handle it.
And they get replaced by a machine,
their job gets, you know, offshored
and they end up going to trucking because it’s a place
where they can maintain their income.
And so it’s super high stress.
Like they’ve left their family behind,
maybe they quit another job.
They’re typically being charged a lot of money.
So that first couple of weeks,
like you might get charged $8,000 by the company
that you have to pay back if you don’t get hired.
And so the stakes are high and this machine is huge
and it’s intimidating.
And so it’s super stressful.
I mean, I watched, you know, grown men break down crying
about like how they couldn’t go home and tell their son
that they had been telling they were gonna, you know,
go become a long haul truck driver that they’d failed.
And it’s kind of this super high stress system.
And it’s designed that way partly
because as one of my trainers later told me,
it’s basically a two week job interview.
Like they’re testing you, they’re seeing like, you know,
how’s this person gonna respond when it’s tough, you know,
when they have to do the right thing and it’s slow
and, you know, they need to learn something,
are they gonna rush, you know,
or are they gonna kind of stay calm, figure it out,
you know, nose to the grindstone.
Cause when you’re a new truck driver, you’re unsupervised,
you know, and that’s what they’re really looking for
is that kind of quality of conscientious work
that’s gonna carry through to the job.
Well, so the truck is such an imposing part
of a traffic scenario.
So you said like turning, it stresses me out every time
I look at a truck cause they, I mean,
the geometry of the problem is so tricky.
And so if you combine the fact that they have to,
like everybody, basically all the cars in the scene
are staring at the truck and they’re waiting,
often in frustration.
And in that mode, you have to then shift gears perfectly
and move perfectly.
And if, when you’re new, especially,
like you’ll probably, for somebody like me,
it feels like it would take years to become calm
and comfortable in that situation
as opposed to be exceptionally stressed under the eyes
of the road, everybody looking at you, waiting for you.
Is that the psychological pressure of that?
Is that something that was really difficult?
Again, just, I saw people freeze up, you know,
in that intersection as, you know, horns are blaring
and the truck’s grinding, you know, gears
and you just can’t, you know, and they just shut down.
They’re like, this isn’t for me, I can’t do it.
You’re right, it takes years.
If, you know, trucking is not considered
a skilled occupation, but, you know, my six months there,
and I was a pretty good rookie, but when I finished,
I was still a rookie, even shifting, definitely backing,
tight corners and situations, you know,
I could drive competently, but the difference between me
and someone who had, you know, two, three years
of experience was, it was a giant gulf between us.
And between that and the really skilled drivers
who’ve been doing it for 20 years, you know,
it’s still another step beyond that.
So it is highly skilled.
Would it be fair to break trucking into the task
of driving a truck into two categories?
One is like the local stuff, getting out of the parking lot,
getting into, you know, driving down local streets
and then highway driving, those two tasks.
What are the challenges associated with each task?
You kind of emphasized the first one.
What about the actual like long haul highway driving?
Yeah, so, I mean, and they are very different, right?
And the key with the long haul driving is really a set of,
the way I came to understand it was a set of habits, right?
We have a sense of driving, particularly men, I think,
have a sense of driving as like being really skilled,
is like the goal and you can kind of maneuver yourself
out of in and out of tight spaces with great speed
and breaking and acceleration, you know.
For a really good truck driver,
it’s about understanding traffic and traffic patterns
and making good decisions
so you never have to use those skills.
And the really good drivers, you know,
the mantra is always leave yourself an out, right?
So always have that safe place that you can put that truck
in case that four wheeler in front of you
who’s texting loses control.
You know, what are you gonna do in that situation?
And what really good truck drivers do on the highway
is they just keep themselves
out of those situations entirely.
They see it, they slow down, you know, they avoid it.
And then the local driving is really something
that takes just practice and routine to learn.
You know, this quarter turn,
it feels like the back of the truck sometimes is on delay
when you’re backing it up.
So it’s like, all right, I’m gonna do a quarter turn
of the wheel now to get the effect that I want
like five seconds from now
in where that tail of that trailer is gonna be.
And there’s just no,
I mean, some people have a natural talent for that,
you know, spatial visualization
and kind of calculating those angles and everything,
but there’s really no escaping the fact
that you’ve gotta just do it over and over again
before you’re gonna learn how to do it well.
Do you mind sharing how much you were getting paid,
how much you were making as a truck driver
in your time as a truck driver?
Yeah, I started out at 25 cents a mile
and then I got bumped up to 26 cents a mile.
So we had a minimum pay,
which was sort of a new pay scheme
that the industry had started to introduce to, you know,
because there’s lots of unpaid work and time.
And so we had a minimum pay of $500 a week
that you would get
if you didn’t drive enough miles to exceed that.
You get paid in sort of,
so you get paid when you turn the bills in,
which is the paperwork that goes with the load.
So, you know, you have to get that back to your company
and then that’s how they bill the customer.
And so you might get a bunch of those bills
that kind of bunch up in one week.
So, you know, I might get a paycheck for, you know, $1,200.
And I mean, I was a poor graduate student.
So this was real, real money to me.
And so I had this sort of natural incentive to,
you know, earn a lot or to maximize my pay.
Some weeks were that minimum, 500, very few.
And then some I’d get 1200, 1300 bucks.
Pay has gone up, you know,
typical drivers now starting in the 30s, you know,
in the kind of job that I was in.
30 cents per mile, 30 to 35.
So can we try to reverse engineer that math,
how that maps to the actual hours?
So the hours connected to driving are so widely dispersed,
as you said, some of them don’t count as actual work,
some of it does.
That’s a very interesting discussion
that we’ll then continue
when we start talking about autonomous trucking.
But, you know, you’re saying all these cents per mile
kind of thing.
What, how does that map to like average hourly wage?
Yeah, so, I mean, and this is kind of the,
this is also an interesting technology story in the end.
And it’s the technology story that didn’t happen.
So pay per mile was, you know,
invented by companies when you couldn’t surveil drivers,
you didn’t know what they were doing, right?
And you wanted them to have some skin in the game.
And so you’d say, you know, here’s the load,
it’s going from, you know, for me,
I might start in, you know, the Northeast,
maybe in upstate New York with a load of beer,
and say, here’s this load of beer,
bring it to this address in Michigan,
we’re gonna pay you by the mile, right?
If I was being paid by the hour,
I might just pull over at the diner and have breakfast.
So you’re paid by the mile,
but increasingly over time,
the typical driver is spending more and more time
doing non driving tasks.
There’s lots of reasons for that.
One of which is railroads captured a lot of freight
that goes long distances now.
Another one is traffic congestion.
And the other one is that drivers are pretty cheap.
And they’re almost always the low people
on the totem pole in some segments.
And so their time is used really inefficiently.
So I might go to that brewery
to pick up that load of Bud Light.
And, you know, their dock staff may be busy
loading up five other trucks.
And they’ll say, you know, go over there and sit and wait,
and we’ll call you on the CB when the dock’s ready.
So you wait there a couple hours, they bring you in,
you know, you never know what’s happening in the truck.
Sometimes they’re loading it with a forklift,
maybe they’re throwing 14 pallets on there full of kegs.
But sometimes it’ll take them hours, you know,
and you’re sitting in that truck.
And you’re essentially unpaid.
You know, then you pull out, you’ve got control
over what you’re gonna get paid
based on how you drive that load.
And then on the other end,
you got a similar situation of kind of waiting, so.
So if that’s the way truck drivers are paid,
then there’s a low incentive for the optimization
of the supply chain to make them more efficient, right?
To utilize truck labor more efficiently.
So that’s a technology problem that,
one of several technology problems that could be addressed.
I mean, so what did, if we just linger on it,
what are we talking about in terms of dollars per hour?
Is it close to minimum wage?
Is it, you know, there’s something you talk about,
there was a conception or a misconception
that truckers get paid a lot for their work.
Do they get paid a lot for their work?
And I think that’s part of the complexity.
So, you know, what interested me as an ethnographer
about this was, you know, I’m interested
in the kind of economic conceptions
that people have in their heads
and how they lead to certain decisions in labor markets.
You know, why some people become an entrepreneur
and other people become a wage laborer,
or, you know, why some people wanna be doctors
and other people wanna be truck drivers.
That conception, right, is getting shaped
in these labor markets is the argument of the book.
And the fact that drivers can hear,
or potential drivers can hear about these, you know,
workers who make $100,000 plus,
which happens regularly in the trucking industry.
There are many truck drivers who make more
than $100,000 a year, you know, is an attraction.
But the industry is highly segmented.
And so the entry level segment,
and we can probably get into this,
but, you know, the industry is dominated
by a few dozen really large companies
that are self insured and can train new drivers.
So if you want those good jobs,
you’ve gotta have several years,
up until recently, now the labor market’s becoming tighter,
but you had to have several years of accident free,
you know, perfectly clean record driving
to get into them.
The other part of the segment, you know,
those drivers often don’t make minimum wage.
But this leads to one of the sort of central issues
that has been in the courts,
and in the legislature, in some states,
is, you know, what should truck drivers get paid for?
Right, the industry, you know,
for the last 30 years or so has said, essentially,
it’s the hours that they log for safety reasons
for the Department of Transportation, right?
Now, since the drivers are paid by the mile,
they try to minimize those,
because those hours are limited by the federal government.
So the federal government says,
you can’t drive more than 60 hours in a week
as a long haul truck driver.
And so you wanna drive as many miles as you can
in those 60 hours, and so you under report them, right?
And so what happens is the companies say,
well, that guy, you know, he only said he logged 45 hours
of work that week, or 50 hours of work.
That’s all we have to pay him minimum wage for.
When in fact, typical truck driver in these jobs will work,
according to most people, would sort of define it as like,
okay, I’m at the customer location, I’m waiting to load,
I’m doing some paperwork, you know,
inspecting the truck, I’m fueling it,
just waiting to, you know, get put in the dock,
80 to 90 hours would be sort of a typical work week
for one of these drivers.
And just when you look at that,
they don’t make minimum wage oftentimes.
Right, just to be clear, what we’re dancing around here
is that a little bit over, a little bit under minimum wage
is nevertheless most truck drivers seem to be making
close to minimum wage.
Like this is the, so like we maybe haven’t made that clear.
There’s a few that make quite a bit of money,
but like you’re as an entry and for years,
you’re operating essentially minimum wage
and potentially far less than minimum wage
if you actually count the number of hours
that are taken out of your life
due to your dedication to trucking.
Well, if you count like the hours taken out of your life,
then you gotta go, you know, maybe a full 24.
That’s right, yeah, from family,
from the high quality of life parts of your life.
Yeah, and there’s a whole nother set of rules
that the Department of Labor has,
which basically say that a truck driver
who’s dispatched away from home for more than a day
should get minimum wage 24 hours a day.
And that could be a state minimum wage,
but typically what it would work out to for most drivers
is that, you know, the minimum wage for a truck driver
should be 50s of thousands, you know, 55, $60,000
should be the minimum wage of a truck driver.
And you’ve probably heard about the truck driver shortage.
If, you know, which I hope we can talk about,
if the minimum wage for truck drivers
is as it should be on the books at, you know,
around $60,000, we wouldn’t have a shortage of truck drivers.
And to me, 60,000 is not a lot of money
for this kind of job.
Cause you’re, this isn’t, this is essentially two jobs
and two jobs where you don’t get to sleep
with your wife or see your kids at night.
That’s 60,000 is a very little money for that.
But you’re saying if it was 60,000,
you wouldn’t even have the shortage.
If that was the minimum.
And I think that’s what,
now we have drivers who start in the 30s.
Wow, but yeah.
And I mean, so we’re talking two, three jobs really,
when you look at the total hours
that people are working at, you know,
they can work over a hundred.
If they’re a trainer, you know,
training other truck drivers,
well over a hundred hours a week.
So a job of last resort.
Maybe you can jump around from tangent to tangent.
This is such a fascinating and difficult topic.
I heard that there’s a shortage of truck drivers.
So there’s more jobs than truck drivers
willing to take on the job.
Is that the state of affairs currently?
I mean, I think the way that you just put that is right.
We don’t have a shortage of people
who are currently licensed to do the jobs.
So I’m working on a project for the state of California
to look at the shortage of agricultural drivers.
And the first thing that the DMV commissioner of the state
wanted to look at was, you know,
is there actually a shortage of licensed drivers?
He’s like, I’ve got a database here
of all the people who have a commercial driver’s license
who could potentially have the credential to do this.
There are about 145,000 jobs in California
that require a class A CDL,
which would be that commercial driver’s license
that you need for the big trucks.
About 145,000 jobs.
The industry in their, you know,
regular promotion of the idea that there’s a shortage
is always projecting forward and says,
you know, we’re gonna need 165,000 or so
in the next 10 years.
They’re currently like 435,000 people licensed
in the state of California to drive one of these big trucks.
So it is not at all an absence of people who,
I mean, and again, going back
to what we were talking about before,
getting that license is not something
that you just walk down to the DMV and take the test.
Like this is somebody who probably quit another job,
was unemployed, and took months to go to a training school,
paid for that training school oftentimes,
left their family for months,
invested in what they thought was gonna be
a long term career, and then said,
you know what, forget it, I can’t, I can’t do it.
So yeah, so it’s not just skill,
it’s like they were psychologically invested
potentially for months, if not years,
into this kinds of position as perhaps a position
that if they lose their current job, they could fall too.
Okay, so that’s an indication
that there’s something deeply wrong with the job,
if so many licensed people are not willing to take it.
What are the biggest problems
of the job of truck driver currently?
Yeah, the job, the problems with the job
and the labor market, right?
But let’s start with the job, which is, you know, again,
just so much time that’s not compensated directly
for the amount of time.
And that’s just psychologically,
and this was a big part of what I studied
for the first book was, you know,
that conception of like, what’s my time worth, right?
And like, what truck drivers love is oftentimes,
is that tangible outcome based compensation.
So they say, you know what, you know, honest days work,
I work hard, I get paid for what I do,
I drive 500 miles today,
that’s what I’m gonna get paid for.
And then you get to that dock,
and they tell you, sorry, the load’s not ready,
go sit over there, and you stew.
And that weight can break you psychologically
because your time every second becomes more worthless.
Or worth less.
Yeah, and again, the industry is gonna say, for instance,
okay, well, you know, they’ve got skin in the game, right?
That argument about sort of compensation
based on sort of output, right?
But that’s a holdover from when you couldn’t
Now they all have, you know, satellite linked computers
in the trucks that tell these large companies,
this driver was, you know, at this GPS location
for four and a half hours, right?
So if you wanted to compensate them for that time directly,
and the trucker can’t control what’s happening
on that customer location, you know,
they’re waiting for that, you know, firm,
that customer to tell them, hey, pull in there.
And so what it becomes is just a way to shift
the inefficiencies and the cost of that onto that driver.
Now it’s competitive for customers.
So if you’re Walmart, you might have your choice
of a dozen different trucking companies
that could move your stuff.
And if one of them tells you, hey, you’re not moving
our trucks in and out of your docks fast enough,
we’re gonna charge you for how long our truck
is sitting on your lot.
If you’re Walmart, you’re gonna say,
I’ll go see what the other guy says, right?
And so companies are gonna allow that customer
to essentially waste that driver’s time, you know,
in order to keep that business.
Can you try to describe the economics,
the labor market of the situation?
You mentioned freight and railroad.
What is the sort of the dynamic financials,
the economics of this that allow for such low salaries
to be paid to truckers?
Like what’s the competition?
What’s the alternative to transporting goods via trucks?
Like what seems to be broken here
from an economics perspective?
Yeah, so it’s, well, nothing.
It’s a perfect market, right?
I mean, so for economists, this is how it should work, right?
But the inefficiencies, like you said,
sorry to interrupt, are pushed to the truck driver.
Doesn’t that like spiral, doesn’t that lead to
a poor performance on the part of the truck driver
and just like make the whole thing more and more inefficient
and it results in lower payment
to the truck driver and so on.
It just feels like in capitalism,
you should have a competing solution
in terms of truck drivers.
Like another company that provides transportation via trucks
that creates a much better experience for truck drivers,
making them more efficient, all those kinds of things.
How is the competition being suppressed here?
Yeah, so it is, the competition is based on who’s cheaper.
And this is the cheapest way to move the freight.
Now, there are externalities, right?
I mean, so this is the explanation
that I think is obvious for this, right?
There are lots of costs that,
whether it’s that driver’s time,
whether it’s the time without their family,
whether it’s the fact that they drive through congestion
and spew lots of diesel particulates into cities
where kids have asthma and make our commutes longer
rather than more efficiently use their time
by sort of routing them around congestion
and rush hour and things like that.
This is the cheapest way to move freight.
And so it’s the most competitive.
A big part of this is public subsidy of training.
So when those workers are not paying for the training,
you and I often are.
So if you lose your job because of foreign trade
or you’re a veteran using your GI benefits,
you may very well be offered training,
publicly subsidized training to become a truck driver.
And so all of these are externalities
that the companies don’t have to pay for.
And so this makes it the most profitable way to move freight.
So trucks is way cheaper than trains?
Well, over the long,
so one of the big stories for these companies
is that the average length of haul,
which becomes very important for self driving trucks,
the average length of haul has been steadily declining.
Over the last 15 years or so,
and this is industry collected data
from sort of the big firms that report it,
but roughly been cut in half from typically
about a thousand miles to under 500.
And under 500 is what a driver can move in a day, right?
So you can get loaded, drive and unload,
around 400 miles or something like that.
I wanna steal a good question from the Penn Gazette
interview you did, which people should read.
It’s a great interview.
Was there a golden age for long haul truckers in America?
And if so, this is just a journalistic question.
And if so, what enabled it and what brought it to an end?
Wow, I might have to have you read my answer to that.
That was a few years ago,
be interesting to compare what I’ll say, but.
I mean, one bigger question to ask, I guess,
is like Johnny Cash wrote a lot of songs about truckers.
There used to be a time when perhaps falsely,
perhaps it’s part of the kind of perception
that you study with the labor markets and so on.
There was a perception of truckers being,
first of all, a lucrative job
and second of all, a job to be desired.
Yeah, so I mean, this is,
the trucking industry to me is fascinating,
but I think it should be fascinating to a lot of people.
So the golden age was really two different kinds
of markets as well, right?
Today we have really good jobs and some really bad jobs.
We had the Teamsters Union
that controlled the vast majority of employee jobs.
And even where they had something called
the National Master Freight Agreement.
And this was Jimmy Hoffa who led the union
through its sort of critical period by the mid 60s
had unified essentially the entire nation’s
trucking labor force under one contract.
Now you were either covered by that contract
or your employer paid a lot of attention to it.
And so by the end of the 1970s,
the typical truck driver was making
well more than $100,000,
typical truck driver was making more than $100,000
in today’s dollars and was home every night.
That was without a doubt and even more
than unionized auto workers, steel workers,
10, 20% more than those workers made.
That was the golden age for sort of job quality,
wages, teamster power.
They were without a doubt the most powerful union
in the United States at that time.
At the same time in the 1970s,
you had the mythic long haul trucker.
And these were the guys who were kind of on the margins
of the regulated market,
which is what the teamsters controlled.
A lot of them were in agriculture,
which was never regulated.
So in the new deal, when they decided to regulate trucking,
they didn’t regulate agriculture
because they didn’t wanna drive up food prices,
which would hurt workers in urban areas.
So they essentially left agricultural truckers out of it.
And that’s where a lot of the kind of outlaw,
you know, asphalt cowboy imagery that we get.
And I grew up, I know you didn’t grow up in the US
at this sort of, you know, as a young child.
And I’m a bit older than you, but in the late 70s,
there were movies and TV shows and CBs were a craze.
And it was all these kind of outlaw truckers
who were out there hauling some unregulated freight.
They weren’t supposed to be trying to avoid the bears,
you know, who are the cops.
And, you know, with all this salty language
and these like, you know, terms that only they understood
and, you know, the partying at diners and popping pills,
you know, the California turnarounds.
So asphalt cowboys, truly.
So it’s like another form of cowboy movies.
Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
And I think that sort of masculine ethos of like,
you got 40,000 pounds of something you care about,
I’m your guy, you know,
you needed to go from New York to California,
don’t worry about it, I got it.
That’s appealing and it’s tangible, right?
And you think about people who don’t wanna be paper pusher
and sit in the, I deal with office politics,
like just give me what you care about
and I’ll take care of it, you know, just pay me fair,
you know, and that appeals.
You mentioned unions, Teamsters, Jimmy Hoffa.
Big question, maybe difficult question.
What are some pros and cons of unions historically
and today in the trucking space?
Yeah, well, if you’re a worker, there are a lot of pros.
And I don’t, you know,
and this was one of the things I talked to truckers about
Yeah, what’s their perception of Jimmy Hoffa,
for example, of unions?
Yeah, so, and this was probably one of the central
hypotheses that I had going in there.
And it may sound, you know,
someone who does hard science, right?
You may hear a social scientist, you know,
sort of use that terminology,
even other social scientists.
Yeah, you know, they don’t like it,
but I do like to think that way.
And my initial hypothesis was that, you know,
and it’s very simple,
that, you know, the tenure of the driver in the industry
would have a strong effect on how they viewed unions.
That, you know, somebody who had experienced unions
would be more favorable
and someone who had not would not be, right?
And that turned out to be the case without a doubt.
But in an interesting way,
which was that even the drivers
who were not part of the union,
who in the kind of public debate of deregulation
were portrayed as these kind of small business truckers
who were getting shut out by the big regulated monopolies
and the Teamsters Union, you know,
the corrupt Teamsters Union.
Even those drivers longed for the days of the Teamsters
because they recognized the overall market impact
that they had.
That trucking just naturally
tended toward excessive competition
that meant that there was no profit to be made
and oftentimes you’d be operating at a loss.
And so even these, you know,
the asphalt cowboy owner operators from back in the day
would tell me when the Teamsters were in power,
I made a lot more money.
And, you know, this is, you know, unions,
at least those kinds of unions, like the Teamsters,
you know, there’s, I think a lot of misconceptions today
sort of popularly about what unions did back then.
They tied wages to productivity.
Like that was the central thing that the Teamsters Union did.
And, you know, there were great accounts
of sort of Jimmy Hoffa’s perspective
for all his portrayal as sort of corrupt
and criminal, and there’s, you know, I’m not disputing that.
He broke a lot of laws.
He was remarkably open about who he was and what he did.
He actually invited a pair, a husband and wife team
of Harvard economists to follow him around
and like opened up the Teamsters books to them
so that they could see how he was, you know,
thinking about negotiating with the employers.
And the Teamsters, and this goes back to the beginning,
and this goes back well before Hoffa,
back to the, you know, 1800s,
they understood that workers did better
if their employers did better.
And the only way the employers would do better
was if they controlled the market.
And so oftentimes the corruption in trucking
was initiated by employers who wanted to limit competition
and they knew they couldn’t limit competition
without the support of labor.
And so you’d get these collusive arrangements
between employers and labor to say no new trucking companies.
There are 10 of us, that’s enough.
We control Seattle, we’re gonna set the price
and we’re not gonna be undercut.
When there’s a shortage of trucks around, it’s great,
rates go up, but you get too many trucks.
It’s very often that you end up operating at a loss
just to keep the doors open.
You know, you don’t have any choice.
You can’t, it’s what economists called derived demand.
You can’t like make up a bunch of trucking services
and store it in a warehouse, right?
You gotta keep those trucks moving to pay the bills.
Can we also lay out the kind of jobs that are in trucking?
What are the best jobs in trucking?
What are the worst jobs in trucking?
What are we, how many jobs are we talking about today?
And what kind of jobs are there?
So there are a number of different segments
and the first part would be, you know, are you offering,
the first question would be,
are you offering services to the public
or are you moving your own freight, right?
So are you a retailer, say Walmart or, you know,
a paper company or something like that
that’s operating your own fleet of trucks?
That’s private trucking.
For hire are the folks who, you know,
offer their services out to other customers.
So you have private and for hire.
In general, for hire pays less.
Is that because of the, something you talk about
with employee versus contractor situation
or are they all tricked or led to become contractors?
That can become a part of it as a strategy,
but the fundamental reason is competition.
So those private carriers aren’t in competition
with other trucking fleets, right?
For their own in house services.
So, you know, they tend to, and this, you know,
the question of why private versus for hire
because for hire is cheaper, right?
And so if you need that, if that trucking service
is central to what you do and you cannot afford disruptions
or volatility in the price of it, you keep it in house.
You should be willing to pay more for that
because it’s more valuable too
and you keep it in house and that.
So that’s an interesting distinction.
What about, and this is kind of moving towards
our conversation of what can and can’t be automated.
How else does it divide the different trucking jobs?
So the next big chunk is kind of
how much stuff are you moving, right?
And so we have what’s called truckload
and truckload means, you know, you can fill up a trailer
either by volume or by weight and then less than truckload.
Less than truckload, the official definition
is like less than 10,000 pounds.
You know, this is gonna be a couple of pallets of this,
a couple of pallets of that.
The process looks really different, right?
So that truckload is, you know, point A to point B,
I’m buying, you know, a truckload of bounty paper towels,
I’m bringing it into, you know, my distribution center,
go pick it up at the bounty plant,
bring it to my distribution center, right?
Nowhere in between do you stop.
At least process that freight.
Less than truckload, what you’ve got is terminal systems.
And this is what you had under regulation too.
And so these terminal systems, what you do is you do
a bunch of local pickup and delivery,
maybe with smaller trucks,
and you pick up two pallets of this here,
four pallets of this there, you bring it to the terminal,
you combine it based on the destination,
you then create a full truckload, you know, trailer,
and you send it to another terminal
where it gets broken back down,
and then out for local delivery.
That’s gonna look a lot like if you send a package by UPS,
right, they pick all these parcels, right,
figure out where they’re all going,
put them on planes or in trailers
going to the same destination,
then break them out to put them
in what they call package cars.
So, before I ask you about autonomous trucks,
let’s just pause for your experience as a trucker.
Did it get lonely?
Like, can you talk about some of your experiences
of what it was actually like?
Did it get lonely?
Yeah, no, I mean, it was, I didn’t have kids at the time.
Now I have kids, I can’t even imagine it.
You know, I’ve been married for five years at the time.
My wife hated it, I hated it.
You know, I describe in the book
the experience of being stuck,
if I remember correctly, it was like Ohio
at this truck stop in the middle of nowhere
and like, you know, sitting on this concrete barrier
and just watching fireworks in the distance
and like eating Chinese food on the 4th of July.
And you know, my wife calls me from like the family barbecue
and our anniversary is July 8th.
And she’s like, are you gonna be home?
And I’m like, I don’t know, you know.
I have a cousin whose husband drove truck
as a truck driver would say, drove truck for a while.
And he told me before I went into it,
he was like, the advantage you have is that you know
that you’re not gonna be doing this long term.
Like, and Lex, I can’t even like,
the emotional content of some of these interviews,
I mean, I would sit down at a truck stop with somebody
I had never met before and you know, you open the spicket
and the last question I would ask drivers
was that by the time I really sort of figured out
how to do it, the last question I would ask them is,
you know, what advice would you give to somebody,
like your nephew, you know, a family friend asks you
about what it’s like to be a driver and should they do it?
What advice would you give them?
And this question, some of these, you know,
grizzled old drivers, you know, tough, tough guys,
would that question would like, some of them would break down
and they would say, I would say to them,
you better have everything
that you ever wanted in life already.
Because I’ve had a car that I’ve had for 10 years,
it’s got 7,000 miles on it.
I own a boat that hasn’t seen the water in five years.
My kids, I didn’t raise them.
Like I’d be out for two weeks at a time,
I’d come home, my wife would give me two kids to punish,
a list of things to do, you know, on Saturday night
and I might leave out Sunday night or Monday morning.
You know, I come home dead tired,
my kids don’t know who I am.
And you know, it was just like,
it was heartbreaking to hear those stories.
And then before you know it, you know,
life is short and just the years run away.
Hard question to ask in that context,
but what’s the best,
what was the best part of being a truck driver?
Was there moments that you truly enjoyed on the road?
There was, there’s definitely a pride and mastery of,
you know, even basic competence
of sort of piloting this thing safely.
There’s a lot of responsibility to it.
That thing’s dangerous and you know it.
So there’s some pride there.
For me personally, and I know for a lot of other drivers,
it’s just like seeing these behind the scenes places
that you know exist in our economy.
And I think we’re all much more aware of them now
after COVID and supply chain mess that we have.
I don’t know if we’ll talk about that,
but you know, you get to see those places.
You know, you get to see those ports.
You get to see the place where they make the cardboard boxes
that the Huggies diapers go in.
Or the warehouse full of Bud Light.
I moved Bud Light from like upstate New York
and the first load like went to Atlanta, you know?
And then a couple months later,
I circled back through that same brewery
and I brought a load of Bud Light out to Michigan.
And I was like, holy shit, all the Bud Light,
like, you know, for this whole giant swath
of the United States comes from this one plant,
this cavernous plant with like kegs of beer.
And you see that part of the economy
and it’s like, you’re almost like you’re an economic tourist.
And I think all, everybody kind of appreciates that.
Like kind of, it’s almost like a behind the scenes tour.
That wears off after a few months, you know?
You start to see new things less and less frequently.
At first, everything’s novel and sort of life on the road.
And then it becomes just endless miles of white lines
and yellow lines and truck stops.
And the days just blur together.
You know, it’s one loading dock.
It’s one loading dock after another.
So you lose the magic of being on the road.
Yeah, it’s very rare the driver that doesn’t.
You mentioned COVID and supply chain.
While being this, for a brief time,
this member of the supply chain,
what have you come to understand about our supply chain,
United States and global and its resilience
against strategies, catastrophic in the world?
Like COVID, for example.
Yeah, I mean, we have built really long,
really lean supply chains.
And just by definition, they’re fragile.
You know, the current mess that we have,
it’s not gonna clear by Christmas.
It will be lucky if it clears by next Christmas.
Can you describe the current mess in supply chain
that you’re referring to?
Yeah, so we’ve got pile ups of ships
off the coast of California, Long Beach,
and LA in particular, in bad shape.
You know, last I checked, it was around 60 ships,
all of which are holding thousands of containers
full of stuff that retailers were hoping
was gonna be on shelves for the holiday season.
Meanwhile, the port itself has stacks and stacks
of containers that they can’t get rid of.
The truckers aren’t showing up to pick up
the containers that are there,
so they can’t offload the ships that are waiting.
And why aren’t the truckers picking it up?
Partly because there’s a long history of inefficiency
in making them wait,
but it’s because the warehouses are full.
So we’ve had all these perverse outcomes
that no one really expected.
Like in the middle of all these shortages,
people are stockpiling stuff.
So there are suppliers who used to keep two months
of supply of bottled water on hand.
And after going through COVID and not having supply
to send to their customers,
they’re like, we need three months.
Well, our system is not designed for major storage of goods
to go up 50% in a category.
If you’re a warehouse operator,
you know, you wanna be 90% plus.
You don’t want a lot of open bays sitting around.
So we don’t have 10% extra capacity in warehouses.
We don’t have 10% of them.
Trucking capacity can fluctuate a bit,
but you don’t have that kind of slack.
And now, I mean, and we saw this
right when people shifted consumption.
And I get a little mad when people talk about panic buying
as kind of the reason that we had all these shortages.
It really, like it’s preventing us from understanding,
you know, the real problem there,
which is that lean supply chain.
Sure, there was some panic buying, you know,
no doubt about it,
but we had an enormous shift in people’s behavior.
So with my sister and brother in law,
I own a couple of small businesses and we serve food, right?
So we get, you know, food from Cisco.
Cisco couldn’t get rid of food, right?
Because nobody’s eating out.
So they’ve got, you know, 50 pounds sacks of flour,
you know, sitting in their warehouse
that they can’t get rid of.
They’ve got cases of lettuce and meat and everything else
that’s just gonna go bad.
So that panic buying certainly exacerbated some things
like toilet paper and whatever,
but we saw just a massive change in demand.
And our supply chains are based on historical data, right?
So, you know, that stuff leaves Asia,
you know, months before you wanna have it on the shelves
and you’re predicting based on last year, you know,
what you want on that shelf.
And so it’s a, you know, I guess at its best,
it’s a beautiful symphony of lots of moving parts,
but now everyone can’t get on the same page of music.
But it’s not resilient to changes
in on mass human behavior.
So even like I read somewhere,
maybe you can tell me if it’s true in relation to food,
it’s just the change of human behavior
between going out to restaurants versus eating at home.
As a species, we consume a lot less food that way.
Apparently what I read in restaurants,
like there’s a lot of food just thrown out.
It’s part of the business model.
And so like you then have to move a lot more food
through the whole supply chain.
And now because you’re consuming, you know,
there’s leftovers at home,
you’re consuming much more of the food you’re getting
when you’re eating at home,
that’s creating these bottleneck situations,
problems as you’re referring to,
too much in a certain place, not enough in another place.
And it’s just the supply chain is not robust
those kinds of dynamic shifts in who gets what where.
Yeah, I mean, so, and I have worked in agriculture a bit
on sort of the supply side, you know,
and there are product categories, right?
Where 30% of the crop raised does not get used, right?
Just gets plowed under or wasted.
But here’s the importance of this
in sort of getting this right, you know, like that,
not that like panic buying, you know,
blame the irrational consumer, you know,
look at the hard sort of truth
of the way we’ve set up our economy.
And I’ll ask you this, Lex, I know you’re a hopeful,
Yeah, I am too.
I mean, I write about problems all the time.
And so people think I’m sort of like a,
just a Debbie Downer, you know, pessimist,
but I’m a glass half full kind of guy.
Like I want to identify problems so we can solve them.
So let me ask you this,
we’ve got these long lean supply chains.
In the future, do you see more environmental problems
that could disrupt them,
more geopolitical problems that could disrupt trade
from Asia, you know, other institutional failures?
Do those things seem, you know,
potentially more likely in the future
than they have been in say the last 20 years?
Yeah, it almost absolutely seems to be the case.
So you then have to ask the question of
how do we change our supply chains?
Whether it’s making more resilient
or make them less densely connected,
you know, building a, it’s like a, what is it?
You know, the Tesla model for in the automotive sector
of like trying to build everything,
like trying to get the factory to do as much as possible
with as little reliance on widely distributed sources
of the supply chain as possible.
So maybe like rethinking how much we rely
on the infrastructure of the supply chain.
Yeah, I mean, you know, there’s some basic,
and I assume, right, that there are a lot of folks
in corporate boardrooms looking at risk
and saying that didn’t go well,
and maybe it could have even gone worse.
Maybe we need to think about reshoring, right?
At the very least, one of the things
that I’m hearing about anecdotally
is that they’re starting stuff up, you know,
when they can, right?
Which is, that’s probably not sustainable, right?
I mean, at some point, somebody in that corporate boardroom
is gonna say, you know, guys, inventory is getting
kind of heavy and the cost of that is like,
do we, can we really justify that much longer
to the shareholders, right?
We can back off and start, you know,
back, things are back to normal, let’s lean out.
Well, my hope is that there’s a technology solution
to a lot of aspects of this.
So one of them on the supply chain side
is collecting a lot more data,
like having much more integrated
and accurate representation of the inventory
all over the place,
and the available transportation mechanisms,
the trucks, the all kinds of freight,
and how in the different models
of the possible catastrophes that can happen,
like how will the system respond?
So having a really solid model that you’re operating under
as opposed to just kind of being in emergency response mode
under poor, incomplete information,
which is what seems like is more commonly the case,
except for things like you said, Walmart and Amazon,
they’re trying to internally get their stuff together
on that front, but that doesn’t help
the rest of the economy.
So another exciting technological development
as you write about, as you think about is autonomous trucks.
So these are often brought up in different contexts
as the examples of AI and robots taking our jobs.
How true is this?
Should we be concerned?
I think they’ve really come to epitomize
this anxiety over automation, right?
It’s such a simple idea, right?
Truck that drives itself,
classic blue collar job that pays well,
guy maybe with not a lot of other good options, right?
To sort of make that same income easily,
and you build a robot to take his job away, right?
So I think 2016 or so,
that was the sort of big question out there,
and that’s actually how I started studying it, right?
I just wrapped up the book,
just so happened that somebody was working at Uber,
Uber had just bought auto, saw the book and was like,
hey, can you come out and talk to our engineering teams
about what life is like for truck drivers
and maybe how our technology could make it better.
And at that time, there were a lot of different ideas
about how they were gonna play out, right?
So while the press was saying,
all truckers are gonna lose their jobs,
there were a lot of people in these engineering teams
who thought, okay, if we’ve got an individual owner operator
and they can only drive eight or 10 hours a day,
they hop in the back, they get their rest,
and the asset that they own works for them, right?
Sort of perfect, right?
And at that time, there were a bunch of reports
that came out and sort of basically what people did
was they took the category of truck driver.
Some people took a larger category from BLS
of sales and delivery workers
that was about three and a half million workers
and others took the heavy duty truck driver category,
which was at the time about 1.8 million or so.
And they picked a start date and a slope
and said, let’s assume that all these jobs
are just gonna disappear.
And really smart researcher, Annette Bernhardt
at the Labor Center at UC Berkeley
was sort of looking around for people
who were sort of deeply into industries
to complicate those analyses, right?
And reached out to me and was like,
what do you think of this?
And I said, the industry is super diverse.
I haven’t given a ton of thought, but it can’t be that.
It’s not that simple, it never is.
And so she was like, will you do this?
And I was like ready to move on to another topic.
I had like been in trucking for 10 years
and that’s how I started looking at it.
And it is, it’s a lot more complicated.
And the initial impacts, and here’s the challenge I think,
and it’s not just a research challenge,
it’s the fundamental public policy challenge
is we look at the existing industry
and the impacts, the potential impacts,
they’re not, you know, nothing.
For some communities and some kinds of drivers,
they’re gonna be hard.
And there are a significant number of them.
Nowhere near what people thought.
You know, I estimate it’s like around 300,000,
but that’s a static picture of the existing industry.
And here’s the key with this is, at least in my conclusion
is this is a transformative technology.
We are not going to swap in self driving trucks
for human driven trucks and all else stays the same.
This is gonna reshape our supply chains.
It’s gonna reshape landscapes.
It’s gonna affect our ability to fight climate change.
This is a really important technology in this space.
Do you think it’s possible to predict the future
of the kind of opportunities it will create,
how it will change the world?
So like when you have the internet,
you can start saying like all the kinds of ways
that office work, all jobs will be lost
because it’s easy to network.
And then software engineering allows you to automate
a lot of the tasks like Microsoft Excel does, you know.
But it opened up so many opportunities,
even with things that are difficult to imagine,
like with the internet, I don’t know, Wikipedia,
which is widely making accessible information.
And that increased the general education globally by a lot,
all those kinds of things.
And then the ripple effects of that
in terms of your ability to find other jobs
is probably immeasurable.
So is it just a hopeless pursuit to try to predict
if you talk about these six different trajectories
that we might take in automating trucks,
but like as a result of taking those trajectories,
is it a hopeless pursuit to predict
what the future will result in?
Yeah, it is.
It absolutely is.
Because it’s the wrong question.
The question is, what do we want the future to be
and let’s shape it, right?
And I think this is, and this is the only point
that I really wanna make in my work
for the foreseeable future,
is that we have got to get out of this mindset
that we’re just gonna let technology kind of go
and it’s a natural process and whatever pops out
will fix the problems on the backside.
And we’ve got to recognize that one,
that’s not what we do, right?
You know, and self driving vehicles
is just such a perfect example, right?
We would not be sitting here today
if the Defense Department, right?
If Congress in 2000 had not written into legislation
funding for the DARPA challenges,
which followed, actually I think the funding came
a couple of years later,
but the priority that they wrote in 2000
was let’s get a third of all ground vehicles
in our military forces unmanned, right?
And this was before aerial unmanned vehicles
had really sort of proven their worth.
They would come to be incredibly,
like, you know, just blow people’s minds
in terms of their additional capabilities,
the lower costs, you know,
keeping soldiers out of harm’s way.
Now, of course they raised other problems
and considerations that I think we’re still wrestling with,
but that was even before that they had this priority.
We would not be sitting here today
if Congress in 2000 had not said, let’s bring this about.
So they already had that vision, actually.
I didn’t know about that.
So for people who don’t know the DARPA challenges
is the events that were just kind of like
these seemingly small scale challenges
that brought together some of the smartest roboticists
in the world, and that somehow created enough of a magic
where ideas flourished,
both engineering and scientific,
that eventually then was the catalyst
for creating all these different companies
that took on the challenge.
Some failed, some succeeded,
some are still fighting the good fight.
And that somehow just that little bit of challenge
was the essential spark of progress
that now resulted in this beautiful up and down wave
of hype and profit and all this kind of weird dance
where the B word, billions of dollars
have been thrown around and we still don’t know.
And the T word, trillions of dollars
in terms of transformative effects of autonomous vehicles.
And all that started from DARPA
and that initial vision of, I guess, as you’re saying,
of automating part of the military supply chain.
I did not know that.
So they had the same kind of vision for the military
as we’re not talking about a vision for the civilian,
whether it’s trucking or whether it’s autonomous vehicle,
sort of a ride sharing kind of application.
Yeah, I mean, what an incredible spark, right?
And just the story of what it produced, right?
I mean, your own work on self driving, right?
I mean, you’ve studied it as an academic, right?
How many great researchers and minds have been harnessed
by this outcome of that spark, right?
And I think this is sort of theoretically about technology,
right, this is what makes it sort of so great
is that this is what makes us human, in my opinion, right?
Is that you conceive of something in your mind
and then you bring it into reality, right?
I mean, that’s what is so great about it.
Sometimes you’re too dumb to realize how difficult it is
so you take it.
And then eventually you’re in too deep.
You might as well solve the problem.
Well, and maybe we’re in that situation right now
with self driving.
But, you know, and so let me throw this out there.
I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it.
But truck drivers always ask me, like, is this for real?
Like, is this really, like, it’s harder than they think,
like, right, and they can’t really do this.
And, you know, at first I was like, look, you know,
this is like the defense department
and like basically the top computer science
and robotics departments in the world.
And now Silicon Valley with billions of dollars in funding
and just, you know, some of the smartest, hardest working,
most visionary people focused on what is clearly,
you know, a gigantic market, right?
And what I tell them is like,
if self driving vehicles don’t happen,
I think this will be the biggest technology failure story
in human history.
I don’t know of anything else that is just galvanized.
I mean, you’ve had people in garages or weird inventors
work on things their whole lives and come really close
and it never happens and it’s a great failure story, right?
But never have we had like whole,
I mean, we’re talking about GM, right?
And these are not, you know, these are not tech companies,
right, these are industrial giants, right?
What were in the 20th century,
the pinnacle of industrial production in the world
in human history, right?
And they’re focused on it now.
So if we don’t pull this off, it’s like, wow.
It’s fascinating to think about.
I’ve never thought of it that way.
There was a mass hysteria on a level
in terms of excitement and hype
on a level that’s probably unparalleled in technology space.
Like I’ve seen that kind of hysteria just studying history
when you talk about military conflict.
So we often wage war with a dream of making a better world
and then realize it costs trillions of dollars
and then we step back and like, and go, wait a minute,
what do we actually get for this?
But in the space of technology,
it seems like all these kinds of large efforts
have paid off.
This, you’re right.
It seems like, it seems like even GM and Ford
and all these companies now are a little bit like,
hey, or Toyota and even Tesla,
like, are we sure about this?
And it’s fascinating to think about
when you tell the story of this,
this could be one of the big first, perhaps,
but by far the biggest failures of the dream
in the space of technology.
That’s really interesting to think about.
I was a skeptic for a long time
because of the human factor.
Because for business to work in the space,
you have to work with humans
and you have to work with humans at every level.
So in the truck driving space,
you have to work with the truck driver,
but you also have to work with the society
that has a certain conception of what driving means.
And also you have to have work with businesses
that are not used to this extreme level of technology,
you know, in the basic operation of their business.
So I thought it would be really difficult
to move to autonomous vehicles in that way.
But then I realized that there’s certain companies
that are just willing to take big risks
and really innovate.
I think the first impressive company to me was Waymo
or what was used to be the Google self driving car.
And I saw, okay, here’s a company
that’s willing to really think longterm
and really try to solve this problem, hire great engineers.
Then I saw Tesla with Mobileye when they first had.
I thought, actually Mobileye is the thing that impressed me.
When I sat down, I thought,
because I’m a computer vision person,
I thought there’s no way a system could keep me in lane
long enough for it to be a pleasant experience for me.
So from a computer vision perspective,
I thought there’d be too many failures.
It’d be really annoying.
It’d be a gimmick, a toy.
It wouldn’t actually create a pleasant experience.
And when I first was gotten Tesla with Mobileye,
the initial Mobileye system,
it actually held to lane for quite a long time
to where I could relax a little bit.
And it was a really pleasant experience.
I couldn’t exactly explain why it’s pleasant
because it’s not like I still have to really pay attention,
but I can relax my shoulders a little bit.
I can look around a little bit more.
And for some reason that was really reducing the stress.
And then over time, Tesla with a lot of the revolutionary
stuff they’re doing on the machine learning space
made me believe that there’s opportunities here to innovate,
to come up with totally new ideas.
Another very sad story that I was really excited about
is Cadillac SuperCruise system.
It is a sad story because I think I vaguely read in the news
they just said they’re discontinuing SuperCruise,
but it’s a nice innovative way
of doing driver attention monitoring
and also doing lane keeping.
And it just innovation could solve this
in ways we don’t predict.
And same with in the trucking space,
it might not be as simple as like journalists envision
a few years ago, where everything’s just automated.
It might be gradually helping out the truck driver
in some ways that make their life more efficient,
more effective, more pleasant,
remove some of the inefficiencies
that we’ve been talking about in totally innovative ways.
And that I still have that dream
that I believe to solve the fully autonomous driving problem
we’re still many years away,
but on the way to solving that problem,
it feels like there could be,
if there’s bold risk takers and innovators in this space,
there’s an opportunity to come up
with like subtle technologies that make all the difference.
That’s actually just what I realized
is sometimes little design decisions
make all the difference.
It’s the Blackberry versus the iPhone.
Why is it that you have a glass and you’re using your finger
for all of the work versus the buttons
makes all the difference.
This idea that now that you have a giant screen
so that every part of the experience
is now a digital experience.
So you can have things like apps that change everything.
You can’t, when you first thinking about
do I want a keyboard or not on a smartphone,
you think it’s just the keyboard decision.
But then you later realize by removing the keyboard,
you’re enabling a whole ecosystem of technologies
that are inside the phone.
And now you’re making the smartphone into a computer.
And that same way,
who knows how you can transform trucks, right?
By like automating some parts of it,
maybe adding some displays,
maybe allows you to,
maybe giving the truck driver some control
in the supply chain to make decisions
all those kinds of things.
So, I don’t know.
So where are you on the spectrum of hope
for the role of automation in trucking?
I think automation is inevitable.
And again, I think this is really going to be transformative
and it’s gonna be,
I’ve studied the history of trucking technology
as much as I can.
There’s not a lot of great stuff written
and you kind of have to,
there isn’t a lot of data and places to know
sort of volumes of stuff and how they’re changing, et cetera.
But the big revolutionary changes in trucking
are because of constellations of factors.
It’s not just one thing, right?
So Daimler builds a motorized truck
and I think it’s 1896, right?
So basically what they use that truck for
is just to swap out horses, right?
They basically do the same thing.
The service doesn’t really change, you know?
And then World War I really spurs the development
of sort of bigger, larger trucks,
like spreads air filled tires.
And then we start paving roads, right?
And paved roads, right?
Air filled tires and the internal combustion engine.
Now you got a winning mix.
Now it met with demand for people who wanted to get out
from under the thumb of the railroads, right?
So there was all of this pent up demand
to get cheaper freight from the countryside
into cities and between cities
that typically had to go by rail.
And so now, you know, 40 years
after that internal combustion engine,
it becomes this absolutely essential, right?
This necessary but not sufficient piece of technology
to create the modern trucking industry in the 1930s.
And I think self driving is gonna be,
self driving trucks are gonna be part of that.
And the idea, I guess we credit Jeff Bezos.
The idea is, you know, okay, so Sam Walton,
if we can do it like a slight tangent
on sort of the importance of trucking to business strategy
and sort of how it has transformed our world.
The central insight that Sam Walton had
that made him the giant that he was
in influencing the way that so many people get stuff
was a trucking insight.
And so if you look at the way that he developed his system,
you build a distribution center
and then you ring it with stores.
Those stores are never further out
from that distribution center
than a human driven truck
can drive back and forth in one day.
And so rather than the way all of his competitors
were doing it with sending trucks all over the place
and having people sleep overnight
and sort of making the trucking service fit
where they had stores,
he designed the layout of the stores
to fit what trucks could do.
And so transportation and logistics
become Walmart’s edge
and allows them to dominate the space.
That’s the challenge that Amazon has now.
They’ve mastered the digital part of it.
And now they got to figure out
how do we dominate the actual physical movement
that complements that.
Others are obviously gonna follow.
But the capabilities of these trucks
is completely different
than the capability of a human driven truck.
So if you’re Smith packing
and you’ve got a bunch of meat in a warehouse
and it’s going to grocery distribution centers,
you have that trucker probably come in the night before
and you make him wait
so that he has a full 10 hour break,
which is what the law requires
so that he can get to the furthest reaches
that he can of one of those stores.
So he can drive his full 11 hours
and bring that meat
so it doesn’t have to sit overnight
in that refrigerated trailer.
And so their system is based on that.
Now, what happens when that truck
can now travel two times as far, right?
Three times as far.
Now you don’t need the warehouses where they were.
Now you can go super lean with your inventory.
Instead of having meat here, meat there, meat there,
you can put it all right here.
And if it’s cheap enough,
substitute those transportation costs
for all that warehousing costs, right?
So this is gonna remake landscapes
in the same way that big box supply chains did, right?
And then of course, the further compliment of that is,
how do you then get it to two people at their door, right?
And the big box supply chain,
it moves very few items in really large quantities
to very few locations pretty slowly, right?
Ecommerce aspires to do something completely different,
move huge varieties of things in small quantities,
virtually everywhere as fast as possible, right?
And so that is like that intercity trucking
under the, in the era of railroad monopolies, right?
The demand for that is potentially enormous, right?
And so there’s such a,
so right now I think a lot of the business plans
for sort of automated trucks, right?
And sort of the way that the journalistic accounts portray it
is like, okay, if we swap out a human for a computer,
what are the labor costs per mile?
And like, oh, here’s the profitability
of self driving trucks, uh uh.
Like this is transformative technology.
We’re gonna change the way we get stuff.
So we could actually get a lot more trucks period
with like with autonomous trucks
because they would enable a very different kind
of transportation networks you think.
Yeah, here’s, and this is where it’s like, uh oh.
Like, yeah, so we really thought
we were gonna be electrifying trucks.
If they’re going twice as far,
if they’re moving three times as much,
if they’re going three times as far, right?
What does that mean for how far we are
behind on batteries, right?
We’ve got sort of these, you know, ideas about like, man,
we, you know, here’s how far,
how close we could get to meet this demand.
That demand is gonna radically change, right?
These trucks are, you know, so then we’ve got to think
about, all right, if it’s not batteries, you know,
how are we powering these things?
And how many of them are they’re gonna be?
Like right now we’ve got 5 million containers
that move from LA and Long Beach to Chicago on rail.
Rail is three or four times at least more efficient
than trucks in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
And on that lane, it varies a lot depending on demand,
but maybe rail has a 20% advantage in cost, maybe 25%,
but it’s a couple of days slower.
So now you cut the cost of that truck,
transportation per mile by 30%.
Now it’s cheaper than rail and it gets the stuff there
five days faster than rail.
How many millions of containers are gonna leave LA
and Long Beach on self driving trucks and go to Chicago?
And it might look very much like a train
if we go with the platooning solution,
where you have these rows of like,
imagine like rows of like 10, like dozens of trucks
or like hundreds of trucks, like some absurd situation.
Just going from LA to Chicago, just this train,
but taking up a highway.
I mean, this is probably a good place
to talk about various scenarios.
Well, before we get there,
can I just make one interesting observation
that I made as a driver?
When you’re in a truck, you’re up higher.
So you can see further and you can see the traffic patterns
and cars move in packs.
I’m sure there’s academic research on this, right?
But they move in packs.
They kind of bunch up behind a slower car
and then a bunch of them break free.
And this is sort of on almost free flowing highways.
They kind of move in packs
and you can kind of see them in the truck.
So, rather than platoons,
we might have like hives of trucks, right?
So you have like 20 trucks moving
in some coordinated fashion, right?
And then maybe the self driving cars are,
cause people don’t like to be around them
or whatever it is, right?
You might have a pod of 20 self driving cars
sort of moving in a packet behind them.
This is what, if the aliens came down
or we’re just observing cars,
which is one of the sort of prevalent characteristics
of human civilization is there seems to be these cars
like moving around that would do this kind of analysis
of like, huh, what’s the interesting clustering
of situations here,
especially with autonomous vehicles, I like this.
Okay, so what technologically speaking
do you see are the different scenarios
of increasing automation in trucks?
What are some ideas that you think about?
For the most part, I have no influence
on sort of what these ideas were.
So what the project was that I did was I said,
technology is created by people, they solve for X
and they have some conception of what they wanna do.
And that’s where we should start in sort of thinking
about what the impacts might be.
So I went and I talked to everybody I could find
who was thinking about developing a self driving truck.
And the question was essentially,
what are you trying to build?
Like, what do you envision this thing doing?
It turned out that that for a lot of them
was an afterthought.
They knew the sort of technological capabilities
that a self driving vehicle would have.
And those were the problems that they were tackling.
They were engineers and computer scientists and…
Oh, robotics people, I love you so much.
This is, I could talk forever about this,
but yes, there’s a technology problem,
let’s focus on that and we’ll figure out
the actual impact on society,
how it’s actually going to be applied,
how it’s actually going to be integrated
from a policy and from a human perspective,
from a business perspective later.
First, let’s solve the technology problem.
That’s not how life works, friends, but okay, I’m sorry.
Yeah, yeah, so I mean,
I’m sure you know the division of labor
in these companies, right?
There’s sort of a business development side,
you know, and then there’s the engineering side, right?
And the engineers are like, oh my God,
what are these business development people, you know,
why are they involved in this process?
So I ended up sort of coming up with a few different ideas
that people seem to be batting around
and then really tried to zero in
on a layman’s understanding of the limitations, right?
And it turns out that’s really obvious and quite simple.
Highway driving’s a lot simpler, right?
So, you know, the plan is simplify the problem, right?
And focus on highways because city driving
is so much more complicated.
So from that, I came up with basically six scenarios,
actually I came up with five
that the developers were talking about.
And then one that I thought was a good idea
that I had read about, I think in like 2013 or 2014,
which was actually something
that the US military was looking at.
I actually first heard about the idea
of this kind of automation, at least in sketched out form
in like 2011, I guess it was with Peloton,
which was this sort of early technology entrant
into the trucking industry,
which was working on platooning trucks.
And all they were doing was, you know,
a cooperative adaptive cruise control
as they came to call it.
And we ended up on a panel together.
And it’s kind of interesting because I was on that panel
because I was thinking about how we got the best return
on investment for fuel efficient technologies.
And if it’s cool, I’ll sort of set this up
because it does, it comes into sort of the story
of some of these scenarios.
So when I studied the drivers,
you had this like complete difference in the driving tasks,
like we were talking about before
with long haul and city, right?
And you’re not paid in the city,
you’ve got congestion, the turns are tight.
There’s lots of, you know, pedestrians, you know,
all the things that self driving trucks don’t like,
truckers don’t like, right?
And they’re not paid, there’s lots of waiting time.
And then in the highway, they get to cruise,
they’re getting paid, they have control,
they go at their own pace,
they’re making money, they’re happy.
Well, it turned out, I guess it was around 2010,
this is still when we were thinking
about regenerative braking, you know,
and hybrid trucks being sort of like the solution.
The problems with them sort of,
and the advantages, you know,
also split on what I was thinking of
as kind of the rural urban divide at that time, right?
So, like you got the regenerative braking, right?
You can make the truck lighter,
you can keep it local, right?
You don’t get any benefit from that, you know,
hybrid electric on the rural highway,
you want aerodynamics, right?
There, you want low rolling resistance tires
and these super aerodynamic sleek trucks, right?
Where we know with off the shelf technology today,
we could double the fuel economy,
more than double the fuel economy of the typical truck
in that highway segment,
if we segmented the duty cycle, right?
And so in the urban environment,
you want a clean burning truck,
so you’re not giving kids asthma,
you want it lighter,
so it’s not destroying those less strong pavements, right?
You’re not, you can make tighter turns,
you don’t need a sleeper cab,
because the driver, you know,
hopefully is getting home at night, right?
In the long haul, you want that super aerodynamic stuff.
Now that doesn’t get you anything in the city,
and in fact, it causes all kinds of problems,
because you turn too tight,
you crunch up all the aerodynamics
that connect the tractor and the trailer.
So the idea that I had was like, okay,
what if we deliberately segmented it?
Like, what if we created these droplets outside cities,
where, you know, a local city driver who’s paid by the hour
kind of runs these trailers out once they’re loaded,
you know, doesn’t sit there and wait while it’s being loaded,
they drop off a trailer, they go pick up one that’s loaded,
they run it out, when it’s loaded, they call them,
and they just run them out there and stage them.
It’s like an Uber driver, but for truckloads.
Yeah, and we have like intermodal.
We have like, basically this would be the equivalent
of like rail to truck intermodal, right?
So you put it on the rail, and then, you know,
a trucker picks it up and delivers it, right?
So instead of having the rail,
you’d have these super aerodynamic, hopefully platoons,
or what at the time was called long combination vehicles,
which is basically two trailers connected together, right?
Because this is like a huge productivity gain, right?
And then instead of that driver like me,
I would pick up something in upstate New York,
drive to Michigan, drive to Alabama, you know,
drive to Wisconsin, drive to Florida, you know,
I’d get home every two weeks.
If I’m just running that, you know, that double trailer,
I might be able to go back and forth
from Chicago to Detroit, right?
Take two trailers there, pick up two trailers going back,
right, and be home every night.
Now, the problem with that at the time,
or one of them was, you know, bridge weights.
So you can’t, not all bridges can handle
that much weight on them.
They can’t handle these doubles, right?
And some places can, some places can’t.
And so this platooning idea was happening at the same time,
and we ended up on the same panel,
and the founders were like,
hey, so what’s it like to follow
really close behind another truck?
Which was kind of the stage that they were at was like,
you know, what’s that experience gonna be like?
And I was like, truckers aren’t gonna like it, you know?
I mean, that’s just like the cardinal rule
is following distance.
Like that’s the one you really shouldn’t violate, right?
And when you’re out on the road,
like you have that trucker like right on your ass,
you know, people remember that.
They don’t remember the 99.9% of truckers
that are not on their ass, you know?
Like they’re very careful about that.
But when the trucks are really close together,
there’s benefits in terms of aerodynamics.
So that’s the idea.
So like if you want to get some benefits of a platoon,
you want them to be close together,
but you’re saying that’s very uncomfortable for truckers.
Yeah, so I mean, I think that ended up at the,
I mean, Peloton I think is sort of winding down
their work on this.
And I think that ended up being still an open question.
Like, and I had a chance to interview a couple drivers
who at least one, maybe two of which
had actually driven in their platoons.
And I got completely different experiences.
Some of them were like, it’s really cool.
You know, I’m like in communication with that other driver.
You know, I can see on a screen what’s out,
you know, the front of his truck.
And then some were like, it’s too close.
And it might be one of those things that’s just,
you know, it takes an adjustment to sort of get there.
So you get the aerodynamic advantage,
which, you know, saves fuel.
There’s some problems though, right?
So, you know, you’re getting that aerodynamic advantage
because there’s a low pressure system
in front of that following truck.
But the engine is designed with higher pressure
feeding that engine, right?
So there are sort of adjustments that you need to make
and, you know, still the benefits are there.
That’s one scenario.
And that’s just the automation
of that acceleration and braking.
Starsky, which, you know,
probably a lot of your listeners heard about,
was working on another scenario,
which was, you know, to solve that local problem
was gonna do teleoperation, right?
Sort of remote piloting.
I had the chance to, you know,
sort of watch them do that.
You know, they drove a truck in Florida
from San Francisco in one of their offices.
That was really interesting.
In case it’s not clear,
teleoperation means you’re controlling the truck remotely,
like it’s a video game.
So you’ve gotten the chance to witness it.
Does it actually work?
Yeah, I mean, so it’s a…
What are the pros and cons?
You know, one of the problems with doing research like this
with all these Silicon Valley folks is the NDAs.
So, you know, I don’t know what I’m able to say
about sort of watching it,
but obviously they’re public statements
about sort of what the challenges are, right?
And it’s about the latency
and the ability to sort of in real time.
There’s challenges there.
Let me say one thing.
So I’m talking to the…
You know, I’ve talked to the Waymo CTO.
I’m in conversations with them.
I’m talking to the head of trucking, Boris Softman,
in next month, actually.
I’m a huge fan of his because he was,
I think the founder of Anki,
which is a toy robotics company.
So I love human robot interaction.
And he created one of the most effective
and beautiful toy robots.
Anyway, I keep complaining to them on email privately
that there’s way too much marketing in these conversations
and not enough showing off both the challenge
and the beauty of the engineering efforts.
And that seems to be the case
for a lot of these Silicon Valley tech companies.
They put up this, you’re talking about NDAs.
For some reason, rightfully or wrongfully,
because there’s been so much hype
and so much money being made,
they don’t see the upside in being transparent
and educating the public about how difficult the problem is.
It’s much more effective for them to say,
we have everything solved.
This will change everything.
This will change society as we know it.
And just kind of wave their hands
as opposed to exploring together
like these different scenarios.
What are the pros and cons?
Why is it really difficult?
You know, what are the gray areas
of where it works and doesn’t?
What’s the role of the human in this picture
of the both sort of the operators
and the other humans on the road?
All of that, which are fascinating human problems,
fascinating engineering problems
that I wish we could have a conversation about
as opposed to always feeling like it’s just marketing talk.
Because a lot of what we’re talking about now,
even you with having private conversations under NDA,
you still don’t have the full picture of everything,
of how difficult this problem is.
One of the big questions I’ve had,
still have is how difficult is driving?
I disagree with Elon Musk and Jim Keller on this point.
I have a sense that driving is really difficult.
You know, the task of driving, just broadly.
This is like philosophy talk.
How much intelligence is required to drive a car?
So from like a Jim Keller,
who used to be the head of autopilot,
the idea is that it’s just a collision avoidance problem.
It’s like billiard balls.
It’s like you have to convert the drive.
You have to do some basic perception,
a computer vision to convert driving into a game of pool.
And then you just have to get everything into a pocket.
To me, there just seems to be some game theoretic dance
combined with the fact that people’s life is at stake.
And then when people die at the hands of a robot,
the reaction is going to be much more complicated.
So all of that, but that’s still an open question.
And the cool thing is all of these companies
are struggling with this question
of how difficult is it to solve this problem sufficiently
such that we can build a business on top of it
and have a product that’s going to make
a huge amount of money
and compete with the manually driven vehicles.
And so their teleoperation from Starsky’s
is really interesting idea.
How much can, I mean,
there’s a few autonomous vehicle companies
that tried to integrate teleoperation in the picture.
Can we reduce some of the costs
while still having reliability,
like catch when the vehicle fails
by having teleoperation?
It’s an open question.
So that’s for you scenario number two
is to use teleoperation as part of the picture.
Yeah, let me follow up on that question
of how hard driving is,
because this becomes a big question for researchers
who are thinking about labor market impacts,
because we start from a perspective
of what’s hard or easy for humans.
And so if you were to look at truck driving prior to a lot,
I mean, there’s been a lot of thinking and debate
in academic research circles
around sort of how you estimate labor impacts,
what these models look like.
And a lot of it is about how automatable is a job,
object recognition, really easy for people, right?
Really hard for computers.
And so there’s a whole bunch of things
that truck drivers do that we see as super easy
and as it would have been characterized 10 years ago,
routine, and it’s not for a computer, right?
It turns out to be something that we do naturally
that is sort of cutting edge, right?
So on the teleoperation question,
I think this is a more interesting one
than people would like to sort of let on, I think, publicly.
There are gonna be problems, right?
And this is one of the complexities
of sort of putting these things out in the world.
And if you see the real world of trucking,
you realize, wow, it’s rough.
There are dirt lots, there’s gravel,
there’s salt and ice and cold weather,
and there’s equipment that just gets left out
in the middle of nowhere,
and the brakes don’t get maintained,
and somebody was supposed to service something
and they didn’t, you know?
And so you imagine, okay, we’ve got this vehicle
that can drive itself,
which is gonna require a whole lot of sensors
to tell it that the doors are still closed
and the trailer’s still hooked up
and each of the tires has adequate pressure,
and any number of, probably hundreds of sensors
that are gonna be sort of relaying information.
And one of them, after 500,000 miles or whatever,
it goes out.
Now, do we have some fleet of technicians
sort of continually cruising the highways
and sort of servicing these things as they do what?
Pull themselves off to the side of the road
and say, I’ve got a sensor fault, I’m pulling over,
or maybe there’s some level of safety critical faults
or whatever it might be.
So that suggests that there might be a role
for teleoperation even with self driving.
And when I push people on it in the conversations,
they all are like, yeah, we kind of have that
on the bottom of the list,
figure out how to rescue truck, you know?
I guess on the to do list, right?
After solving the self driving question is like,
yeah, what do we do with the problems, right?
I mean, no, we could imagine like, all right,
we have some protocol that the truck is not,
realizes the system says not safe for operation,
pull to the side.
Good, you have a crash, but now you got a truck stranded
on the side of the road.
You’re gonna send out somebody to like calibrate things
and check out what’s going on,
or that sounds like expensive labor,
it sounds like downtime, it sounds like the kind of things
that shippers don’t like to happen to their freight,
you know, in a just in time world.
And so wouldn’t it be great if you could just sort of,
you know, loop your way into the controls of that truck
and say, all right, we’ve got a sensor out,
says that the tire is bad,
but I can see visually from the camera, looks fine,
I’m gonna drive it to our next depot,
you know, maybe the next rider or Penske location, right?
Sort of all these service locations around
and have a technician take a look at it.
So teleoperation often gets this, you know,
so dismissive, you know, commentary from other folks
working on other scenarios.
But I think it’s potentially more relevant
than we hear publicly.
But it’s a hard problem.
And, you know, for me, I’ve gotten a chance
to interact with people that take on hard problems
and solve them and they’re rare.
What Tesla has done with their data engine.
So I thought autonomous driving cannot be solved
without collecting a huge amount of data
and organizing it well,
not just collecting, but organizing it.
And exactly what Tesla is doing now
is what I thought it would be,
like I couldn’t see car companies doing that,
And now that they’re doing that, it’s like, oh, okay.
So it’s possible to take on this huge effort seriously.
To me, teleoperation is another huge effort like that.
It’s like taking seriously what happens when it fails.
What’s the, in the case of Waymo for the consumer,
like ride sharing, what’s the customer experience like?
There’s a bunch of videos online now
where people are like the car fails and it pulls off
to the side and you call like customer service
and you’re basically sitting there for a long time
and there’s confusion.
And then there’s a rescue that comes
and they start to drive.
I mean, just the whole experience is a mess
that has a ripple effect to how you trust
in the entirety of the experience.
But like actually taking on the problem
of that failure case and revolutionizing that experience,
both for trucking and for ride sharing,
that’s an amazing opportunity there
because that feels like it would change everything.
If you can reliably know when the failures happen,
which they will, you have a clear plan
that doesn’t significantly affect the efficiency
of the whole process, that could be the game changer.
And if teleoperation is part of that,
it could be just like you’re saying,
it could be teleoperation or it could be like a fleet
of rescuers that can come in, which is a similar idea.
But teleoperation, obviously that allows you
to just have a network of monitors
of people monitoring this giant fleet of trucks
and taking over when needed.
And it’s a beautiful vision of the future
where there’s millions of robots
and only thousands of humans monitoring
those millions of robots.
That seems like a perfect dance
of allowing humans to do what they do best
and allowing robots to do what they do best.
Yeah, yeah, so I mean, I think there are,
and we just applied for an NSF we didn’t get,
anybody’s watching, but with some folks from Wisconsin
who do teleoperation, right?
And some of this is used for like rovers
and I mean, really high stakes, difficult problems.
But one of the things we wanted to study
were these mines, these Rio Tinto mines in Australia
where they remotely pilot the trucks.
And there’s some autonomy, I guess,
but it’s overseen by a remote operator
and it’s near Perth and it’s quite remote
and they retrained the truck drivers
to be the remote operators, right?
There’s autonomy in the port of Rotterdam
and places like that where there are jobs there.
And so I think, and maybe we’ll get to this later,
but there’s a real policy question
about sort of who’s gonna lose and what we do about it
and whether or not there are opportunities there
that maybe we need to put our thumb on the scale
a little bit to make sure that there’s some give back
to the community that’s taking the hit.
So for instance, if there were teleoperation centers,
maybe they go in these communities
that we disproportionately source truck drivers from today.
Now, I mean, what does that mean?
It may not be the cheapest place to do it
if they don’t have great connectivity
and it may not be where the upper level managers wanna be
and places like that, issues like that, right?
So I do think it’s an interesting question,
both from sort of a practical scenario situation
of how it’s gonna work, but also from a policy perspective.
So there’s platoons, there’s teleoperation,
and this is taking care of some of the highway driving
that we’re talking about.
Is there other ideas like,
is there other ideas, scenarios
that you have for autonomous trucks?
Yeah, so I mean, the most obvious one actually
is just facility to facility, right?
The sort of, it can’t go everywhere,
but a lot of logistics facilities
are very close to interstates
and they’re on big commercial roads
without bikes and parked cars and all that stuff.
And some of the jobs that I think are really first
on the chopping block are these LTL,
that less than truckload, what’s called line haul, right?
So these are the drivers who go from terminal to terminal
with those full trailers.
And those facilities are often located strategically
to avoid congestion, right?
And to be in big industrial facilities.
So you could imagine that being the first place
you see a Waymo self driving truck rollout
might be sort of direct facility to facility
for UPS or FedEx or less than truckload care.
And the idea there is fully driverless,
so potentially not even a driver in the truck,
it’s just going from facility to facility empty,
Yeah, and those, because that labor is expensive,
they don’t keep those drivers out overnight,
those drivers do a run back and forth typically,
or in a team go back and forth in one day.
So from the people you’ve spoken with so far,
what’s your sense?
How far are we away from, which scenario is closest
and how far away are we from that scenario
of autonomy being a big part of our trucking fleet?
Most folks are focused on another scenario,
which is the exit to exit, right?
Which looks like that urban truck ports thing
that I laid out earlier.
So you have a human driven truck
that comes out to a drop lot,
it meets up with an autonomous truck,
that truck then drives it on the interstate to another lot,
and then a human driver picks it up.
There are a couple variations maybe on that.
So, or let me just run through the last two scenarios.
The other thing you could do, right,
is to say, all right, I’ve got a truck that can drive itself,
and I refer to this one as autopilot,
but you have a human drive it out to the interstate,
but rather than have that transaction
where the human driven truck detaches the trailer
and it gets coupled up to a self driving truck,
they just, that human driver just hops on the interstate
with that truck and goes in back and goes off duty
while the truck drives itself.
And so you have a self driving truck
that’s not driverless, right?
And just to clarify,
because Tesla uses the term autopilot instead of airplanes,
and so everybody uses the word autopilot,
we’re referring to essentially full autonomy,
but because it’s exit to exit,
the truck driver is onboard the truck,
but they’re sleeping in the back or whatever.
Yeah, and this gets to the really weedy policy questions,
So basically for the Department of Transportation,
for you to be off duty for safety reasons,
you have to be completely relieved of all responsibility.
So that truck has to not encounter a construction site
or inclement weather or whatever it might be,
and call to you and say, hey, you know,
or I mean, obviously, right,
we’re imagining connected vehicles as well, right?
So you’re in a self driving truck,
you’re in the back and trucks 20 miles ahead
experience some problem, right?
That may require teleoperation or whatever it is, right?
And it signals to your truck,
hey, you know, tell the driver 20 miles ahead,
he’s got to hop in the seat.
That would mean that they’re on duty
according to the way that the current rules are written,
they have some responsibility.
And part of that is, you know,
we need them to get rest, right?
They need to have uninterrupted sleep.
So that’s what I call autopilot.
The final scenario is one that I thought was actually
the one scenario that was good for labor, you know,
which I proposed is I was like, well, here’s an idea,
you know, that would be like, actually good for workers.
And just another brief aside here.
The history of trucking over the last, you know, 40 years,
there’s been a lot of technological change.
So when I learned to drive the truck,
I had to learn to manually shift it like I was describing,
you had to read these fairly complicated, you know,
big sets of laminated maps to figure out
where the truck can go and where it couldn’t,
which is a big deal, you know,
I mean, you take these trucks on the wrong road
and you’re destroying a bridge
or you’re doing a can opener,
which is where you try to drive it under a bridge too low.
You’ve probably seen that on YouTube,
if not, you know, check it out, you know, truck can opener.
You know, there’s some bridges that are famous for it,
right, and there’s one I think called the can opener
and you can find on YouTube.
And, you know, you had to log those hours like manually
and sort of do the math and plan your work routine.
And I would do this every day.
I’d say like, okay, I’m gonna get up at five.
I’ve got to think about Buffalo and there’s traffic there.
So I wanna be through Buffalo by 6.30, you know,
and then that’ll put me, you know, in Cleveland at,
you know, 9.30, which means I’ll miss that rush hour, right,
which is gonna put me in Chicago, you know,
and so you do this and now today, you know,
15 years later, truck drivers don’t have to do any of that.
You know, you don’t have to shift the truck,
you don’t have to map, you know,
you can figure out the least congested route
to go on and your hours of service are recorded
or a good portion of them are reported automatically.
All of that has been a substantial de skilling
that has, you know, put downward pressure on wages
and allowed companies to kind of speed up, monitor
and direct, I mean, the key technology, you know,
that I did work under is satellite linked computers.
So before you could kind of go out and plan your own work
and the boss really couldn’t see what you were doing
and push you and say, you know, you’ve been on break
for 10 hours, why aren’t you moving?
You know, and you might tell them, you know,
cause I’m tired, you know, like I didn’t sleep well,
I’ve got to get a couple more hours, you know,
they’re only gonna accept that so many times
or at least some of those dispatchers are.
So all this technology has made the job sort of, you know,
de skilled the job, you know, hurt drivers
in the labor market, made the work worse.
So I think the burden it’s really on the technologists
who are like, oh, this will make truck driver jobs better
and sort of envision ways that it would.
It’s like, the burden’s really, a proof is really on you
to sort of really clearly lay out what that
is gonna look like because it’s 30 or 40 years of history
suggests that that technology into labor markets
where workers are really weak and cheap is what wins
that new technology doesn’t help workers
or raise their wages.
So it lowers the bar of entry in terms of skill.
So that’s really, that’s tough.
That’s tough to know what to do with because yeah,
from a technology perspective, you wanna make the life
of the people doing the job today easier.
Is that what you want?
No, but that like, when you think about like what exactly,
because the reality is you will make their life
potentially a little bit easier,
but that will allow the companies to then hire people
that are less skilled, get those people
that were previously working there fired or lower wages.
And so the result of this easier is a lower quality of life.
That’s dark actually.
I know, I’m sorry.
But you were saying that was for you initially the hopeful.
Oh no, so I’ll get to that.
But one more thing, cause this is not stopping.
And this is another interesting question
about the sort of automation.
And I think Uber is an interesting example here
where it’s like, okay, if we had self driving trucks
or self driving cars, we could automate
what used to be taxi service.
There’s a whole bunch of stuff
that’s already been automated, like the dispatching.
So the dispatchers are already out of work in rideshare
and the payment is already automated.
So you have to automate steps like this.
So you have to have that initial link to dispatch the truck.
You have to have the automated mapping.
So we’re sort of done all this incremental automation
that could make the truck completely driverless.
There’s some important things happening right now
with the remaining good jobs.
So what you’re really paying for
when you get a good truck driver is, like I said,
you get those kind of local skills
of like backing and congested traffic.
Those, it’s really impressive to watch
and there’s some value on it certainly,
but it’s relatively low value
in the actual driving technique, right?
So you bump something backing into the dock,
it might be a couple of thousand dollars
because you ruin a canopy or something over a dock
or tear up a trailer.
What you really want,
those highly skilled conscientious drivers,
and that’s really what it is.
And that’s what computers are really good at
is about being conscientious, right?
In the sense of like, they pay attention continually, right?
And how I was describing those long haul segments
where the driver just keeps out of the situations
that could become problematic
and just, they don’t look at their phone.
I mean, they take the job seriously and they’re safe
and you can give somebody a skills test, right?
As a CDL examiner, you could take them out and say,
all right, I need you to go around these cones
and drive safely through this school zone.
But what really proves that you’re a safe driver
is two years without an accident, right?
Because that means that day after day,
hour after hour, mile after mile,
you did the right thing, right?
And not when it was like, oh, some situations emerging,
but just consistently over time
kept yourself out of accident situations.
And you can see this with drivers who are a million
or 2 million safe miles.
The value of those drivers for Walmart
is they don’t run over minivans.
The company I worked for,
they ran over minivans on a regular basis.
So when I was trained, they said, we kill 20 people a year.
We send someone to the funeral,
there’s a big check involved, don’t be that.
We don’t wanna go to your funeral
and you don’t wanna be the person who caused that funeral.
Okay, so they just write that off.
Okay, that’s just part of the business model.
Now, forward collision avoidance
can basically eliminate the vast majority
of those accidents.
That’s what the value of a really expensive
conscientious driver is based on.
They don’t run over minivans.
So as soon as you have that forward collision avoidance,
what’s gonna happen to the wages of those drivers?
By way of a therapy session, help me understand,
is a collision avoidance,
automated collision avoidance systems,
are they good or bad for society?
Yeah, I mean, this is, they’re good.
Right. They’re good.
But what do we do about the pain of a workforce
in the short term because their wages are gonna go down
because the job starts requiring less and less skill?
Is there a hopeful message here
where other jobs are created?
So I’m a sociologist, right?
So I’m gonna think about what’s the structure behind that
that creates that pain, right?
And it’s ownership, right?
We don’t call it capitalism for nothing.
What capitalists do is they figure out cheaper,
more efficient ways to do stuff.
And they use technology to do that oftentimes, right?
This is the remarkable history of the last couple centuries
and all the productivity gains is,
people who were in a competitive market saying,
if I have to do it, right?
I don’t have a choice.
Cause like my competitor over there is gonna eat my lunch
if I’m not on my game.
I don’t have a choice.
I’ve got to invest in this technology
to make it more efficient, to make it cheaper.
And what do you look for?
You look for oftentimes, you look for labor costs, right?
You look for high value labor.
If I can take a hundred and,
a lot of these truck drivers make good money,
a hundred thousand dollars, good benefits,
If I can replace them with a $35,000 worker
when I’m competing with maybe a low wage retail employer
rather than some other more expensive employers
for skilled blue collar workers, I’m gonna do that.
And that’s just, that’s what we do.
And so I think those are the bigger questions
around this technology, right?
Is like, are workers gonna get screwed by this?
Like, yeah, most likely.
Like that’s what we do.
So one of the things you say is,
I mean, first of all, the numbers of workers
that will feel this pain is not perhaps as large
as the journalists kind of articulate,
but nevertheless, the pain is real.
And I guess my question here is,
do you have an optimistic vision
about the transformative effects
of autonomous trucks on society?
Like if you look 20 years from now
and perhaps see maybe 30 years from now,
perhaps see these autonomous trucks
doing the various parts of the scenarios you listed.
And there’s just hundreds of thousands of them,
just like veins, like blood flowing through veins
on the interstate system.
What kind of world do you see that’s a better world
than today that involves such trucks?
Yeah, can I defend myself first?
Because I’m reading the comments right now
of people, of the economists who are telling me.
Another commenter, dear PhD in economics.
Yes, yes, dear PhD in economics,
I know that higher skilled jobs
are created by technological advancement, right?
I mean, there are big questions about how many of them,
right, so the idea that we would create
more expensive labor positions, right,
with a new technology, right?
You better check your business plan
if your idea is to take a bunch of low wage labor
and replace it with the same amount of high wage labor,
right, so there’s a question about how many of those jobs.
And there’s the really important social
and political question of are they the same people, right?
And do they live in the same places?
And I think that kind of geography
is a huge issue here with the impacts, right?
Lots of rural workers.
Interesting politically, lots of red state workers, right?
Lots of blue state, maybe union folks
who are gonna try to slow autonomy
and lots of red state representatives in the house maybe
who wanna stand up for their trucker constituents.
So just to defend myself.
Yeah, and to elaborate, I think economics as a field
is not good at measuring the landscape
of human pain and suffering.
So sometimes you can forget in the numbers
that it’s real lives that are at stake.
That’s what I suppose sociology is better at doing.
So we try sometimes, sometimes.
Well, the problem with, I mean,
I’m somebody who loves psychology and psychiatry
and a little bit, I guess, of sociology.
I realize how little, how tragically flawed the field is,
not because of lack of trying,
but just how difficult the problems are.
To do really thorough studies
that understand the fundamentals of human behavior
and this, yes, landscape of human suffering,
it’s almost an impossible task without the data.
And we currently don’t, not everybody’s richly integrated
to where they’re fully connected
and all their information is being recorded
for sociologists to study.
So you have to make a lot of inferences.
You have to talk to people.
You have to do the interviews as you’re doing.
And through that really difficult work,
try to understand, hear the music
that nobody else is hearing,
the music of what people are feeling,
their hopes, their dreams, and the crushing of their dreams
due to some kind of economic forces.
Yeah, I mean, we’ve just lived that
for four and a half years of probably elites,
let me just go out on a limb and say,
not understanding the sort of emotional
and psychological currents
of a large portion of the population, right?
And just being stunned by it and confused, right?
It wasn’t confusing for me after having talked to truckers.
Again, trucking is a job of last resort.
These are people who’ve already lost
that manufacturing job oftentimes,
already lost that construction job to just aging, right?
So what can we do, right?
What’s sort of the positive vision?
Because like, we’ve got tons of highway deaths.
We’ve got, and just the big picture is,
and this is the opportunity, I guess, for investors,
it’s a hugely inefficient system.
So we buy this truck,
there’s this low wage worker in it oftentimes.
And again, I’m setting aside those really good
line haul jobs in LTL, those are a different case.
That low wage worker is driving a truck that they might,
the wheels might roll seven to eight hours a day.
That’s what the truck is designed to do
and that’s what makes the money for the company.
In other seven, eight hours a day,
the driver’s doing other kinds of work
that is not driving.
And then the rest of the day,
they’re basically living out of the truck.
You really can’t find a more inefficient use of an asset
than that, right?
Now, a big part of that is we pay for the roads
and we pay for the rest areas and all this other stuff.
So the way that I work and the way that I think
about these problems is I try to find analogies, right?
Sort of labor processes and things that make economic sense
that seem in the same area of the economy,
but have some different characteristics for workers, right?
And sort of try to figure out
why does the economics work there, right?
And so if you look at those really good jobs,
the most likely way that you as a passenger car driver
would know that it’s one of those drivers
is that there are multiple trailers, right?
So you see these, like maybe it’s three small trailers,
maybe it’s two sort of medium sized trailers.
Some places you might even see
two really big trailers together.
You do that because labor is expensive, right?
And it’s highly skilled.
And so you use it efficiently and you say, all right,
rather than having you haul that little trailer
out of the ports, that sort of half size container,
we’re gonna wait till we get three
or we’re gonna coordinate the movement
so that they’re three ready.
You go do what truckers call make a set,
put them together, right, and you go.
That’s a massive productivity gain, right?
Because you’re hauling two, three times as much freight.
So the positive scenario that I threw out in 2018
was why not have a human driven truck
with a self driving truck that follows it, right?
Just a drone unit.
And to me, this seemed as a non computer scientist,
a non computer scientist, a sociologist, right?
This made a lot of sense because when I got done talking
to the computer scientists and the engineers,
they were like, well, it’s like object recognition,
decision making algorithm, all this stuff.
It’s like, all right, so why don’t you leave
the human brain in the lead vehicle, right?
You got all that processing and then all that following.
Now, again, this is sort of me being a lay person.
I said, why don’t, then that following truck, right,
makes direction from the front.
It uses the rear of the trailer as a reference point.
It maintains the lane.
You’ve got cooperative adaptive cruise control
and that you double the productivity of that driver.
You solve that problem that I hated
in my urban truck ports thing about the bridge weight.
Cause when you get to the bridges,
the two trucks can just spread out just enough
to make the bridge weight, right?
And you can just program that in
and they’re 50 feet further apart,
100 feet further apart.
So interesting sort of, I think, story about this
that leads to kind of, I think, the policy questions.
In, I guess, 2017, Jack Reed and Susan Collins
and requested from the Senate,
the Senate requested research on what the impacts
of self driving trucks would be.
And the first stage of that was for the GAO
to do a report, sort of looking at the lay of the land,
talking to some experts.
And I was working on my 2018 report,
help contribute to that GAO report.
And I had the six scenarios, right?
I’m like, okay, here’s what Starsky’s doing.
Here’s what Embark and Uber are doing.
Here’s what Waymo might be doing.
Nobody really knows, right?
Here’s what Peloton’s doing.
Here’s the autopilot scenario.
And then here’s this one that I think
actually could be good for drivers.
So now you’ve got that driver who’s got
two times the freight.
Their decisions are more important.
They’re managing a more complex system, right?
They’re probably gonna have to have
some global understanding of how to,
the environments in which it can operate safely, right?
Now we’re talking upskilling, right?
And so the GAO sort of writes up these different scenarios
and the idea is that it’s gonna prepare
for this Department of Transportation,
Department of Labor set of processes
to engage stakeholders and sort of get industry perspectives
and then do a study on the labor impacts.
So that DOT, DOL process starts to happen
and I get to the workshop and a friend was sitting
at the table next to me and he holds up the scenarios
that they’re gonna have us discuss at this workshop.
And he’s like, hey, these look really familiar, right?
They were the scenarios from the report,
but there were only five instead of six.
The sixth scenario, which was the upskilling labor,
good for workers scenario, wasn’t discussed.
So to clarify that the integral piece of technology
there is platooning.
Yeah, I mean, in a sense it’s platooning,
but, and in fairness, right, as I pitched that idea
or sort of ran that idea by the computer scientists
and engineers and product managers that I would talk to,
they would say, we thought about that,
but that following truck, it’s not that simple.
That thing, basically we had to engineer that
to be capable of independent self driving,
because what if there was a cut in
or any number of scenarios in which it lost
that connection to the lead truck for whatever reason.
Now, I mean, I don’t know.
Boo hoo, platooning is hard.
There’s edge cases.
I guarantee the number of edge cases in platooning
is orders of magnitude lower than the number of edge cases
in the general solo full self drive.
You do not need to solve the full self driving problem.
I mean, if you’re talking about
probability of dangerous events,
it just seems with platooning,
then like you can deal with cut ins.
Yeah, so this is beyond,
this is one of the challenge obviously of being a researcher
who doesn’t really have any background
in the technology, right?
So I can dream this up.
I don’t, you know, I have no idea if it’s feasible.
Well, let me speak, you spoke to the PhDs in economics.
Let me speak to the PhDs in computer science.
If you think platooning is as hard
as the full self driving problem,
we need to talk, because I think that’s ridiculous.
I think platooning, and in fact,
I think platooning is an interesting idea
for ride sharing as well,
for the general autonomous driving problem,
not just trucking, but obviously trucking
is the big, big benefit,
because the number of A to B points in trucking
is much, much lower than the general ride sharing problem.
But anyway, I think that’s a great idea,
but you’re saying it was removed.
Yeah, and so you can go, you know,
and listeners could go to these reports.
They’re publicly available.
And they explain why in the footnote.
And they note that there was this other scenario
suggested by at least me,
and I can’t remember if they said someone else did too.
But they said, you know, we didn’t include it
because no developers were working on it.
that was the approach that I took in my research, right?
Which was to go to the developers and say,
what’s your vision, right?
What are you trying to develop?
That’s what I was trying to do.
And maybe, you know,
and then I tried to think outside the box at the end
by adding that one, right?
Like, here’s one that I have, you know,
people aren’t talking about that could be cool.
Now, again, it had been proposed in like 2014
for like fuel convoys.
So you could just have like one super armored lead fuel
In a, you know, bringing fuel to forward operating bases
And then you wouldn’t need, you know, the super heavy,
you know, you wouldn’t have to protect the human life
in the following truck.
So that’s interesting.
You’re saying like, when you talk to Waymo,
when you talk to these kinds of companies,
they weren’t at least openly saying they’re working on this.
So then it doesn’t make sense to include in the list.
And so, but here’s the thing, right?
This is the Department of Transportation, right?
And the Department of Labor.
Maybe they could consider some scenarios.
Like maybe we could say, you know, this, we,
this technology has got a lot of potential.
Here’s what we’d like it to do.
You know, we’d like it to reduce highway deaths,
help us fight climate change, reduce congestion,
you know, all these other, other things.
But that’s not how our policy conversation
around technology is happening.
We’re not, and people don’t think that we should.
And I think that’s the fundamental shift
that we need to have, right?
I’ve been involved with this a little bit like NHTSA and DOT.
The approach they took is saying,
we don’t know what the heck we’re doing.
So we’re going to just let the innovators do their thing
and not regulate it for a while, just to see.
You don’t, you think that’s,
you think DOT should provide ideas themselves.
Well, so this is the, this is the great trick
in policy of private actors,
is you get narrow mandates for government agencies, right?
So, you know, the safety case will be handled
by organizations whose mandate is safety.
So the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration,
who is, you know, going to be a key player,
I argue in an article that I wrote, you know,
they’re going to be a key player in actually determining
which scenario is most profitable
by setting the rules for truck drivers.
Their mandate is safety, right?
Now they have lots of good people there who want,
you know, who care about truck drivers
and who wish truck drivers jobs were better,
but they don’t have the authority to say,
hey, we’re going to write this rule
because it’s good for truck drivers, right?
And so when you, you know, we need to say,
you know, as a society, we need to not restrict technology,
not stand in the way of things.
We need to harness it towards the goals that matter, right?
Not whatever comes out the end of the pipeline
because it’s the easiest thing to develop
or whatever is most profitable for the first actor
or whatever, but, you know, and we do,
the thing is we do that, right?
I mean, like when we sent people to the moon,
you know, we did that,
and there were tremendous benefits
that followed from it, right?
And we do this all the time in, you know,
trying to cure cancer or whatever it is, right?
I mean, we can do this, right?
Now the interesting sort of epilogue to that story is,
you know, six months or so, I don’t know how long it was,
after those meetings in which that sixth scenario
was not considered, a company called Locomation,
you know, ends up using that,
essentially that basic scenario with a slight variation.
So they leave the human driver in both trucks
and then that following driver goes off duty.
And then, you know, I’ve been trying to think
of what the term is, they kind of,
I think of it as like slingshotting,
they sort of, when one runs out of hours,
you know, the one who’s off duty goes in front and,
you know, and so, you know, if only they had been,
you know, around six months earlier,
that might’ve been considered by the OT,
but it just says, you know, who has the authority
to propose what these visions of the future are?
Well, some of it is also just the company stepping up
and just doing it, screw the authority,
and showing that it’s possible,
and then the authority follows.
So that’s why I really love innovators in the space.
The criticism I have, the very sort of real,
I don’t know, harsh criticism I have
towards autonomous vehicle companies in the space
is they’ve gotten culturally,
they’ve, it’s become acceptable somehow
to do demos and videos,
as opposed to the old school American way
of solving problems.
There’s a culture in Silicon Valley
where you’re talking to VCs
that have lost that kind of love of solving problems.
They kind of like envision,
if the story you told me in your PowerPoint presentation
is true, how many trillions of dollars
might I be able to make?
There’s something lost in that conversation
where you’re not really taking on like the problem
in a real way, so these autonomous vehicle companies
realize we don’t need to,
we just need to make nice PowerPoint presentations
and not actually deliver products
that like everybody looks outside and says,
holy shit, this is life changing.
This is where I have to give props to Waymo
is they put driverless cars on the road
and like forget PowerPoint slide presentations,
actual cars on the road.
Then you can criticize like,
is that actually going to work?
Who knows, but the thing is they have cars on the road
and that’s why I have to give props to Tesla.
They have whatever you want to say about risk
and all those kinds of things,
they have cars on the road
that have some level of automation
and soon they have trucks on the road as well.
And that kind of, that component,
I think is important part of the policy conversation
because you start getting data from these companies
that are willing to take the big risks
as opposed to making slide decks,
they’re actually putting cars on the road
and like real lives are at stake.
They could be lost and they could bankrupt the company
if they make the wrong decisions.
And that’s deeply admirable to me.
Speaking of which I have to ask Waymo trucks,
I think it’s called Waymo Via.
So I’m talking to the head of trucking at Waymo.
I don’t know if you’ve gotten a chance
to interact with them.
What’s a good question to ask the guy?
What’s a good question of Waymo?
Because they seem to be one of the leaders in the space.
They have the zen like calm
of like being willing to stick with it for the longterm
in order to solve the problem.
Yeah, and I guess they have that luxury, right?
Which I don’t think I,
if I had another life as a researcher,
I would love to just study the business strategies
of startups and Silicon Valley sort of structure.
Would you consider Waymo a startup?
I mean, it’s at least not in the things
that seem to matter in this self driving space.
So you mentioned the demos,
and I don’t have enough data as a sociologist
to really say like, oh, this is why they do what they do.
But my hypothesis is,
there’s a real scarcity of talent and money for this.
And there certainly was a scarcity of like partnerships
with OEMs and the big trucking companies.
And there was a race for it, right?
And the way that if you don’t have the backing of Alphabet,
you do a demo, right?
And you get a few more good engineers who say,
hey, look, they did that cool thing.
Like Anthony Levandowski did with Otto
and that resulted in the Uber purchase of that program.
So what would I ask?
I mean, I think I would ask a lot of questions,
but I think the markets.
Well, there’s also on record and off record conversations
I’m asking for an on record conversation.
And that I don’t know if these companies
are willing to have interesting on record conversations.
Yeah, I mean, I assume that like there are questions
that I don’t think you’d have to ask.
Like I assume they’re gonna be actually driverless, right?
They’re not gonna like keep the driver in there.
So I mean, for the industry,
I think it would be interesting to know
where they see that first adopter, right?
Oh, you mean from like the scenarios that laid out
which one are they going to take on?
Yeah, I mean, cause that’s gonna,
again, it’s those really expensive good jobs, right?
So those LTL jobs, the like UPS jobs.
Now that’s gonna be, that’s where labor is too, right?
That’s where the teamsters are.
That’s the only place they are left, right?
So that’s gonna be the big fight on the hill
and if labor can muster it, right?
I don’t know.
There’s a really cool,
like one thing I would recommend to you and your listeners,
if you really wanna see some like a remarkable page
in sort of the history of labor and automation,
there’s a report that Harry Bridges,
who was the socialist leader of the Longshoremen
on the West Coast and just, you know, galvanize that union
and they still control the ports today
because of the sort of vision that he laid down.
In the 1960s, he put out a photo journal report
called Men and Machines and basically what it was,
was it was an internal education campaign
to convince the membership
that they had to go along with automation.
Machines were coming for their jobs
and what the photo journal,
it’s almost like a hundred pages or something like that
is like, here’s how we used to do it.
Some of you old timers remember it.
Like we used to take the barrels of olive oil
and we’d stack them in the hold and we’d roll them by hand
and we’d put the timber in and we’d, you know,
stack the crates tight, you know,
and that was the pride of the Longshoremen,
was a tight stow.
And now you all know, you know,
there are cranes that come down
and there’s no longer any, you know, rope slings
and we’re loading bulldozers into the hold
to push the ore up into piles
and then clamshells are coming down
and he made this case to them and he said,
this is why we’re signing this agreement
to basically allow the employer to automate
and we’re gonna lose jobs,
but we’re gonna get a share of the benefits.
And so our wages are gonna go up.
We’re gonna continue to control the hiring
and training of workers.
Our numbers are gonna go down,
but you know, basically that last son of a bitch
who’s working at the ports,
he’s gonna be one really well paid son of a bitch,
you know, he may just be one standing,
but he’s gonna love his job.
You should check out that report.
That’s an interesting vision of a future
that probably still holds.
That is, I mean, there is some level
to which you have to embrace the automation.
Yeah, I mean, and who gets, you know,
it’s the benefits, right?
It’s like, I mean, think of the public dollars
that went into developing self driving vehicles
in the early days, right?
Not just the vision of it, right?
Which was a public vision to, you know,
take soldiers out of harm’s way,
but you know, a lot of money.
And there’s some way if you are a business
that’s leveraging the technology
from a broad historical ethical perspective,
you do owe it to the bigger community to pay back,
like for all the investment that was paid
to make that technology a reality.
In some sense, I don’t know how to make that right, right?
On one, there’s this pure capitalism
and then there’s communism and I’m not sure,
I’m not sure how to get that balance right.
You know, I don’t have all the answers in here,
you know, and I wouldn’t expect, you know,
individual private companies to kind of kick back, right?
That’s, capitalism doesn’t allow that, right?
Unless you have a huge monopoly, right?
And then you can on the backside,
create music halls and libraries and things like that.
But you know, here’s what I think, you know,
the basic obligation is, is, you know, come to the table,
like, and have an honest conversation
with the policymakers, with the truck drivers, you know,
with the communities that are at risk.
Like, at least let’s talk about these things, you know,
in a way that doesn’t look like
the way lobbying works right now.
Where you send a well paid lobbyist to the Hill
to, you know, convince some representative or Senator
to stick a sentence or two in that favors you into the,
like, let’s have a real conversation.
Real human conversation.
Can we just do that?
Yeah, don’t play games.
Real, real human conversation.
Let me ask you, mention Autopilot.
Gotta ask you about Tesla, this renegade little company
that seems to be, from my perspective,
revolutionizing autonomous driving
or semi autonomous driving,
or at least the problem of perception and control.
They’ve got a semi on the way.
They got a truck on the way.
What are your thoughts about Tesla Semi?
You know, I, and I did have
some very preliminary conversations
with, you know, policy folks there.
You know, nothing really in the tech
or business side of it too much.
And here’s why.
I think because electrification and autonomy
run in opposite directions.
And I just, you know, I don’t see the application,
the value in self driving for the truck
that Tesla’s gonna produce in the near term.
You know, they’re just, you’re not gonna have the battery.
And now you could have wonderful safety systems
and, you know, reinforcing, you know, the auto,
you know, self driving features supporting a skilled driver,
but you’re not gonna be able to pull that driver out
for long stretches the way that you are
with driverless trucks.
So do you think, I mean, the reason,
so yeah, the electrification
is not obviously coupled with the automation.
They have a very interesting approach
to semi autonomous pushing towards autonomous driving.
All right, it’s very unique.
No LIDAR, now no radar.
It’s computer vision alone from a large,
they’re collecting huge amounts of data from a large fleet.
It’s an interesting, unique approach,
bold and fearless in this direction.
If I were to guess whether this approach would work,
I would say, no, it started.
One, you would need a lot of data
and two, because you have actual cars deployed on the road
using a beta version of this product,
you’re going to have a system that’s far less safe
and you’re going to run into trouble.
It’s horrible PR, like it just seems like a nightmare,
but it seems to not be the case, at least up to this point.
It seems to be not, you know, on par, if not safer
and it seems to work really well
and the human factor somehow manages,
like drivers still pay attention.
Now there’s a selection of who is inside
the Tesla autopilot user base, right?
There could be a self selection mechanism there,
but however it works,
these things are not running off the road all the time.
So it’s very interesting whether that can sort of creep
into the trucking space.
Yes, at first the long haul problem is not solved.
They need to charge, but maybe you can solve, you know,
a lot of your scenarios involved small distances
and you know, that last mile aspect,
which is exactly what Tesla is trying to solve
for the regular passenger vehicle space
is the city driving.
It’s possible that you have these trucks.
It’s almost like, yeah, you solved the last mile delivery
part of some of the scenarios that you mentioned
in autonomous driving space.
Is that, do you think that’s from the people you’ve spoken
with too difficult of a problem?
The thing that, you know, keeps me so interested
in this space and thinking that it’s so important,
you know, is again, that efficiency question,
that safety question and the way that these economics
can push us potentially, you know,
toward a more efficient system.
So I wanna see those Tesla electric trucks running out
to those truck ports where you’ve got those two,
you know, two trucks with a human driver in front, right?
You know, I think that’s now what’s powering those
is that hydrogen, you know, I mean, I don’t, you know,
again, it’s very interesting as a researcher
who does not have a background in technology
and doesn’t have a horse, you know, in this race.
I mean, you know, for all I know,
self driving trucks will ultimately be achieved
by some biomechanical sensor that uses echolocation
because we took stem cells of bats.
And you know, I mean, I don’t, I don’t,
I am completely unable to assess who’s, you know,
who’s the head or who’s behind or who makes sense.
But I think one key component there,
and this is what I see with Tesla often,
and it’s quite sad to me that other companies
don’t do this enough, is that first principles thinking,
like, wait, wait, wait, okay.
It’s looking at the inefficiencies as opposed to,
I’ve worked with quite a few car companies
and they basically have a lot of meetings.
There’s a lot of meetings.
And the discussion is like,
how can we make this cheaper, this cheaper, this cheaper,
this component cheaper, this cheaper,
the cheapification of everything, just like you said,
as opposed to saying, wait a minute, let’s step back.
Let’s look at the entirety of the inefficiencies
in the system.
Like, why have we been doing this like this
for the last few decades?
Like, start from scratch.
Can this be 10X, 100X cheaper?
Like, if we not just decrease the cost
of one component here or this component here
or this component here,
but like, let’s like redesign everything.
Let’s infrastructure, let’s have special lanes
or in terms of truck ports,
as opposed to having regular human control truck ports,
have some kind of weird like sensors,
like where everything about the truck connecting
at that final destination is automated fully
from the ground up.
You build the facility from the ground up
for the autonomous truck.
All those kinds of sort of questions are platooning.
Let’s say, wait a minute.
Okay, I know we think platooning is hard,
but can we think through exactly why it’s hard
and can we actually solve it?
Like if we collect a huge amount of data, can we solve it?
And then teleoperation, like, okay, yeah, yeah.
It’s difficult to have good signal,
but can we actually, can we have,
can we consider the probability of those edge cases
and what to do in the edge cases
when the teleoperation fails?
Like how difficult is this?
What are the costs?
How do we actually construct a teleoperation center
full of humans that are able to pay attention
to a large fleet where the average number of vehicles
per human is like 10 or a hundred?
Like having that conversation as opposed to kind of having,
you show up to work and say, all right,
it seems like because of COVID,
we are not making as much money.
Can we have a cheaper,
can we give less salary to the trucker?
And can we build like decrease the cost
or decrease the frequency at which we buy new trucks?
And when we do buy new trucks,
make them cheaper by making them crappier,
like this kind of discussion.
This is why, to me, it’s like Tesla is like rare on this.
And there’s some sectors in which innovation
is part of the culture.
In the automotive sector, for some reason,
it’s not as much.
This is obviously the problem that Ford and GM
are struggling with.
It’s like, they’re really good at making cars at scale cheap.
And they’re like legit good.
Like Toyota at this,
they’re some of the greatest manufacturing people
in the world, right?
But then when it comes to hiring software people,
So it’s culture.
And then it’s such a difficult thing
for them to sort of embrace,
but greatness requires that they embrace this,
embrace whatever is required
to remove the inefficiencies in the system.
And that may require you to do things very differently
than you’ve done in the past.
Yeah, I mean, there are certain things
that the market can do well.
And this is how I see the world, right?
That’s the best way to organize certain kinds of activities
is the market and private interest.
But I think we go too far in some areas.
if we can’t have a public debate about the roads
that we all pay for,
forget about it.
Private factories and all these other,
healthcare and other places,
it’s gonna be way harder there.
Healthcare I guess has some direct contact
with the consumer where we’re probably gonna have lots of
sort of hands on public policy
about concerns around patient rights and things like that.
But if we can’t figure out
how to have a public policy conversation
around how technology is gonna reform our public roadways
and our transportation system,
we’re really leaving way too much to private companies.
And it’s just, it’s not in there.
I get asked this question, like, what should companies do?
And I’m like, just go about doing what you’re doing.
I mean, please come to the table and talk about it,
but it’s not their role.
I mean, I appreciate Ilan’s attempts
to have species level goals,
like, we’re gonna go to Mars.
I mean, that’s amazing.
And that’s incredible that someone can realize that,
have a chance at realizing that vision.
But when it comes to so many areas of our economy,
we can’t wait for a hero.
We have to have,
and there are way too many interests involved.
It’s who builds the roads.
I mean, the money that sloshes around on Capitol Hill
to decide what happens in these infrastructure bills
and the transportation bill is just obscene, right?
See, I think it’s an interesting view of markets.
Correct me if I’m wrong, let me propose a theory to you.
That progress in the world is made by heroes
and the markets remove the inefficiencies
from the work the heroes did.
So going to Mars from the perspective of markets
probably has no value.
Maybe you can argue it’s good for hiring
to have a vision or something like that,
but like those big projects
don’t seem to have an obvious value,
but our world progresses by those big leaps.
And then after the leaps are taken,
then the markets are very good
at removing sort of inefficiencies.
But it just feels like the autonomous vehicle space
and the autonomous trucking space requires leaps.
It doesn’t feel like we can sneak up into a good solution
that is ultimately good for labor,
like for human beings in the system.
It feels like some, like probably a bad example,
but like a Henry Ford type of character steps in
and say like, we need to do stuff completely differently.
Yeah, and you said we can’t hope for a hero,
but it’s like, no, but we can say we need a hero.
We need more heroes.
So if you’re a young kid right now listening to this,
we need you to be a hero.
It’s not like we need you to start a company
that makes a lot of money, no.
You need to start a company that makes a lot of money
so that you can feed your family
as you become a hero and take huge risks
and potentially go bankrupt.
Those risks is how we move society forward, I think.
Maybe that’s a romantic view, I don’t know.
I totally disagree.
You disagree, goddammit.
I mean, I…
And out of the two of us, you’re the knowledgeable one.
No, no, I think it’s a matter of like,
do we need those heroes?
I mean, I saw the boosters come down from space,
boosters come down from SpaceX’s rockets
and land nearly simultaneously with my kids
after school one day.
And I thought, oh my god,
like science fiction has been made real.
And it’s a pinnacle of human achievement, right?
It’s like, this is what we’re capable of.
But we need to have those heroes oriented.
We need to allow them to orient toward the goals, right?
Climate change, you know?
I mean, all the heroes out there, right?
I mean, it’s time.
The clock is ticking.
It’s past time.
I’ve been working on climate change issues
since the mid 90s.
I still remember the first time in 2010
when I got a grant that was completely focused
on adaptation rather than prevention.
And just when it hit me, that like, wow.
So adaptation versus prevention is like acceptance
that there’s going to be catastrophic impact.
We need to figure out how do we at least live with that.
And you know, the grant was like,
okay, our agriculture system is gonna move,
our breadbasket is no longer gonna be California,
it’s gonna be Illinois.
What does that mean for truck transportation?
So it’s like, so in terms of a big philosophical
societal level, that’s kind of like giving up.
In terms of the big heroic actions.
You know, failures in human history, yeah.
That’s gonna be, let’s hope not the biggest, but could be.
So let me say why I disagree, right?
Henry Ford, amazing, right?
To sort of mass produce cars, right?
Daimler to put that first truck on the road
without the roads, right?
So there’s like, we need that innovation.
There’s no doubt about it.
And there are rules for that,
but there’s big public stuff that sets the stage.
And you know, and what it really is,
it’s a sociological problem, right?
It’s a political problem.
It’s a social problem.
We have to say, and we have these screwed up ideas, right?
So we have this politics right now
where like everybody feels like they’re getting screwed
and someone undeserving is benefiting.
When in fact, like, you know, at least in the middle, right?
I used to teach this course in rich and poor,
you know, in economic inequality.
And I would go through public housing subsidies
in Philadelphia, you know, section eight subsidies,
you know, and then I would go through my housing subsidies
for my mortgage interest deduction.
And it worked out to basically the average payment
for a section eight housing voucher in my neighborhood.
I’m not a welfare recipient
according to the dominant discourse.
And so we have this completely screwed up sense
of like where our dollars go and you know,
who benefits from the investment.
And you know, we need to, you know,
I don’t know that we can do it,
but you know, if we’re gonna survive,
we need to figure out how to have honest conversations
where private interest is where we need it to be
in fostering innovation and, you know,
and rewarding the people who do incredible things.
Please, you know, we don’t wanna squash that,
but we need to harness that power
to solve what I think are some pretty big,
you know, existential problems.
So you think there’s a like government level,
national level collaboration required
for infrastructure project.
Like there’s, we should really have large moonshot projects
that are funded by our governments.
At least guided by, I mean,
I think there are ways to finance them
and you know, other things,
but we gotta be careful, right?
Cause that’s where you get all these sort of perverse,
you know, unintended consequences and whatnot.
But if you look at transportation in the United States
and it is the foundation of the, you know,
manifest destiny, economic growth, right?
That built the United States into the world superpower
that it became and the industrial power that it became.
It rested on transportation, right?
It was like, you know, the Erie Canal,
I grew up a few miles from where they dug
the first shovel full of the Erie Canal
and everyone thought it was, you know, crazy, right?
But those public infrastructure projects,
the canals, right, the railroads, yeah,
they were privately built,
but they wouldn’t have been privately built without,
you know, Lincoln funding them essentially
and giving, you know, the railroads, you know, land
in exchange for building them.
The highway system, the Eisenhower,
the payback that the US economy got
from the Dwight D. Eisenhower interstate system
is phenomenal, right?
No private entity was gonna do that.
Electrification, dams, water, you know,
we need to do these infrastructure, infrastructure.
And now more than ever, it’s been really upsetting to me
on the COVID front.
There’s one of the solutions to COVID,
which seems obvious to me from the very beginning
that nobody’s opposed to.
It’s one of the only bipartisan things is at home testing,
rapid at home testing.
There’s no reason why at the government level,
we couldn’t manufacture hundreds of millions of tests
There’s no reason starting in May, 2020.
And that gives power to a country that values freedom,
that gives power information to each individual
to know whether they have COVID or not.
So it’s possible to manufacture them for under a dollar.
It’s like an obvious thing.
It’s kind of like the roads.
It’s like, everybody’s invested.
Let’s put countless tests in the hands
of every single American citizen,
maybe every citizen of the world.
The fact that we haven’t done that today
and there’s some regulation stuff with the FDA,
all the kind of dragging of feet,
but there’s not actually a good explanation
except our leaders and culturally,
we’ve lost the sort of, not lost,
but it’s a little bit dormant.
The will to do these big projects that better the world.
I still have the hope that when faced
with catastrophic events, the more dramatic,
the more damaging, the more painful they are,
the higher we will rise to meet those.
And that’s where the infrastructure style projects
are really important.
But it’s certainly a little bit challenging
to remain an optimist in the times of COVID
because the response of our leaders has not been as great
and as historic as I would have hoped.
I would hope that the actions of leaders
in the past few years in response to COVID
would be ones that are written in the history books.
And we talk about it as we talk about FDR,
but sadly, I don’t know.
I think the history books will forget
the actions of our leaders.
So let me just, to wrap up autonomy,
when you look into the future,
are you excited about automation in the space of trucking?
Is it, when you go to bed at night,
do you see a beautiful world in your vision
that involves autonomous trucks?
Like all of the truckers you’ve become close with,
you’ve talked to, do you see a better world for them
because of autonomous trucks?
Damn you, Alex.
You know why?
Because I mean, I want to be an optimist,
and I want to think of myself, I guess,
as a half glass bowl kind of person.
But when you ask it like that,
and I think about like,
when I look at the challenges to harnessing that for,
just let’s take just labor and climate, right?
There are other issues,
congestion, et cetera, infrastructure,
that are gonna be affected by this,
again, those big transformational issues.
I think it’s gonna take the best of us.
Like it’s gonna take the best of our policy approaches.
We need to start investing in building those,
rebuilding those institutions.
I mean, that’s what we’ve seen in the last four years, right?
And the erosion of that was so clear
among these truck drivers.
Like when Trump came in and said like,
free trades, good for workers, like, yeah, right.
I grew up in the Rust Belt.
I watched factory after factory close.
All of my ancestors worked at the same factory.
It’s still holding on by a thread.
Like, the Democratic Party told blue collar workers
for years, I don’t worry about free trade.
It’s not bad for you.
And I know the economists will probably
get in the comment box now.
We’ll look forward to your comments.
Look forward to your comments
about how free trade benefits everybody.
But, you know, immigration, you know, you go,
and I think immigration is great.
The United States benefits from it tremendously, right?
But there are costs, right?
Go down to South Philadelphia and find a drywaller
and tell him that immigration hasn’t hurt him, right?
You know, go to these places where there’s competition,
And yes, we benefit overall,
but we have a system that allows some people
to pay really high costs.
And Trump tapped into that, you know?
And there was no, you know,
there’s more than that too, obviously.
And there’s lots of really dark stuff
that goes along with it, you know,
the sort of racialization of others and things like that.
But he hit on those core, you know, issues that, you know,
if you were to go back over my trucking interviews
for 15 years, you would have heard those stories
over and over and over again, that sense of voicelessness,
that sense of powerlessness,
that sense that there’s no difference
between the Democrats and the Republicans
because they’re all gonna screw us over.
And that was there, you know?
And you just ignore it as long as you want
and tell people, don’t worry, trade’s good for you.
Don’t worry, immigration’s good for you.
As their communities lose factories.
And I mean, a lot of them were lost to the South
before they were lost to overseas, whatever,
but tapped into that, you know?
And there’s a fundamental distrust of,
you know, you look at these like pupils on like,
you know, whether people trust the media, right?
But whether or not they trust higher education, you know,
these institutions that I find magical, right?
I mean, you look at the vaccine research and stuff,
that, you know, just, you know, brilliant, you know,
people doing incredible things for humanity.
Like, you know, the idea that like, you know,
we can take these viruses that, you know,
used to ravage through the human population
that we had to be terrified of.
And, you know, we’ve suffered, but, you know,
we have such power now to defend ourselves, right?
Behind these programs, right?
And to see those, people would be like,
eh, I’m not sure if higher education’s good
for the country or not, you know, it’s like,
where are we, you know?
So we need to rebuild the faith and trust
in those institutions and have these,
but we need to have honest conversations
before people are gonna buy it, you know?
Do you have ideas for rebuilding the trust
and giving a voice to the voices?
So is the, many of the things we’ve been talking about
is so sort of deeply integrated.
You think like, this is the trouble I have
with people that work on AI and autonomous vehicles
and so on, it’s not just a technology problem.
It’s this human pain problem.
It’s the robot essentially silencing the voice
of a human being because it’s lowering their wage,
making them suffer more and giving them no tools
of how to escape that suffering.
Is there something, I mean, it even gets
into the question of meaning, you know?
So if money is one thing, but it’s also
what makes us happy in life.
You know, a lot of those truckers,
the set of jobs they’ve had in their life
were defining to them as human beings.
And so, and the question with automation
is not just how do we have a job that gives you money
to feed your family, but also a job that gives you meaning,
that gives you pride.
And for me, the hope is that AI and automation
will provide other jobs that will be a source of meaning.
But coupled with that hope is that there will not
be too much suffering in the transition.
And that’s not obvious from the people you’ve spoken with.
I mean, I think we need to differentiate
between the effects of technology
and the effects of capitalism, right?
And they are, you know, the fact that workers
don’t have a lot of power, right, in the system matters.
Now, we had a system, right?
And that’s why I would say, you know,
go to that, you know, Harry Bridges report.
And, you know, those were workers who had a sense of power.
They said, you know what, we can demand
some of the benefits, like, yeah, automate our jobs away,
but, you know, kick a little down to us, right?
And we had, in the golden era of American industrialism
in post World War II, that was the contract.
The contract was employers can do what they want
in automation and all these things.
Yeah, sure, there’s some union rules
that make things less efficient in places,
but the key compromise is tie wages to productivity.
That’s what we did.
We tied, that’s what unions did.
They tied wages to productivity, kept demand up, right?
It was good for the economy, some economists think, right?
And that’s what, you know, we need to,
I think we need to acknowledge that.
We need to acknowledge the fact
that it’s not just technology,
it’s technology in a social context
in which some people have a lot of power
to determine what happens.
For me, I don’t have all the answers,
but I know what my answer is.
And my answer is, and I think I started with this, you know,
I can learn from every single person, you know?
Did I have to talk to the 200th truck driver?
In my opinion, yes, because I was gonna learn something
from that 200th truck driver.
Now, people with more power might talk to none,
or they might talk to five and say, okay, I got it.
You know, people are amazing
and every one of them has a life experience
and concerns and, you know, can teach us something.
And they’re not in the conversation, you know?
And I know this because I’m the expert, you know?
So I get pulled in to these conversations
and people wanna know, you know,
what’s gonna happen to labor, you know?
It’s like, well, so I try to be a sounding board
and I feel a tremendous weight of responsibility,
you know, for that.
So, but I’m not those workers, you know?
And they may listen to this or, you know,
walk in the door sometime, it’s about to be like,
that guy’s full of shit, that’s not what I think at all.
And they don’t get heard over and over and over.
But in a small way, you are providing a voice to them
and that’s kind of the, if at scale,
we apply that empathy and listening,
that we could provide the voice to the voiceless
through our votes, through our money, through,
I mean, that’s one way to make capitalism work
at not making the powerless more powerless,
is by all of us being a community
that listens to the pain of others
and tries to minimize that,
to try to give a voice to the voiceless,
to give power to the powerless.
I have to ask you on, by way of advice,
young people, high school students, college students,
entering this world full of automation,
full of these complex labor markets and markets period,
what would you, what kind of advice would you give
to that person about how to have a career?
How to have a life they can be proud of?
Yeah, I think, you know, this is such a great question.
I don’t, it’s okay to quote Steve Jobs, right?
Yeah, I mean, so, and I just heard this recently.
It was a commencement speech that he gave
and I can’t remember where it was.
And he was talking about, you know,
he had famously dropped out of school,
but continued to take classes, right?
And he took a calligraphy class
that influenced the design of the Mac and sort of fonts.
And, you know, just was something that he had no,
you know, sense of what it was gonna be useful for.
And his lesson was, you know,
you can’t connect the dots looking forward.
You know, looking back, you can see all the pieces
that sort of led you to where you ended up.
And for me, studying truck driving,
like, I mean, I literally went to graduate school
because I was worried about climate change.
And like, you know, I had a whole other dissertation plan
and then was like driving home.
And like, I had read about all this management literature
and sort of like how you get workers to work hard
for my qualifying exams.
And then read a popular article
on satellite linked computers.
And the story in the literature was,
you know, a sense of autonomy.
And I was like, well,
that monitoring must affect the sense of autonomy.
And it’s just this question that I found interesting.
And it never in a million years
that I ever thought I was gonna like study, you know,
spend 15 years of my life studying truck driving.
And it was like, if you were to map out a career path
in academia or research, like, you know,
you would do none of the things that I did
that many people advise me against.
Where like, you can’t like go spend a year
working as a truck driver, you know, like that’s crazy.
Or, you know, you can’t, you know, spend all this time
trying to write like one huge book and, you know.
But by the way, if I could just interrupt,
what was the fire that got you to take the leap
and go and work as a truck driver
and go interview truck drivers?
This is what a lot of people would be incapable of doing,
just took that leap.
What the heck is up with your mind
that allowed you to take that big leap?
So I think it’s probably like Tolkien.
And Lord of the Rings, you know.
I mean, I think as a teenager, you know,
I sort of adopted some sense of needing to, you know,
heroically go out in the world and, you know,
which I’ve done at various points in my life
and like looking back in absolutely stupid ways
that, you know, where I could have completely,
I ended up dead and traumatized my family,
including like, I took a couple week trip in the Pacific,
like a solo trip on a kayak.
And basically my kayak experience up till that, you know,
point had been, you know, on a fairly calm lake
and like class one rapids on a river.
Solo trip on a kayak in the Pacific.
So I was working on forestry issues
and we were starting a campaign
up in really remote British Columbia.
And I was like, okay, if I’m gonna work on this,
I’ve got to actually go there myself
and see what this is all about
and see whether it’s worth like devoting my sort of,
you know, life right now too.
And just drove up there with this kayak
and, you know, put into the Pacific and it was insane.
You know, like the tides are huge
and, you know, there was one point
in which I was going down a fjord
and two fjords kind of came up and there was a cross channel
and I had hit the timing completely wrong
and the tide was sort of rushing up like, you know,
rivers in these, you know, two fjords
and then coming through this cross channel and met
and created this giant standing wave
that I had to paddle through.
And now actually very recently,
I’ve gone out on whitewater with some people
who know what the hell they’re doing
and I realized like just how absolutely stupid
and, you know, ill fit I was,
but that’s just, I think I’ve always had that.
Were you afraid when you had that wave before you?
That wave scared the shit out of me, yeah.
Okay, what about taking a leap and becoming a trucker?
Yeah, there was some nervousness for sure.
I mean, and, you know, I guess my advantage
as an ethnographer is I grew up in a blue collar environment.
You know, again, all my ancestors were factory workers.
So I can move through spaces.
I’m really, I feel, I can become comfortable
in lots and lots of places, you know, not everywhere,
but, you know, along class lines for sort of white,
you know, even white ethnic workers,
like that’s, you know,
I can move in those spaces fairly easily.
I mean, not entirely, there was one time
where I was like, okay, you know,
and I grew up around people who worked on cars.
I’d been to drag races in NASCAR
and I’d been to, you know, Colgate University.
And so I’d, and I think that was probably
my initial training was, you know,
being this just working class kid who ends up in this,
you know, sort of blue blood, small liberal arts college
and just feeling like, you know,
both having the entire world opened up to me,
like philosophy and Buddhism
and things that I had never heard of, you know,
and just became totally obsessed with
and just like, you know, just following my interests.
But also culturally perhaps didn’t feel like you fit in.
Feeling like just a fish out of water.
I just, you know, but, and at the same time
that sort of drove me in the sense
that it drove an opening of my mind
because I couldn’t understand it.
You know, I was like, I didn’t know that this world existed.
I don’t understand.
And I think maybe that’s where my real first step
in trying to understand other people
because they were my friends, you know?
I mean, they were my teammates.
I played lacrosse in college.
So like, you know, I was close to people
who came from such different backgrounds than I did.
And I just, I was so confused, you know?
And so I think I learned to learn
and then, you know, sort of went from there.
And then develop your fascination with people.
And the funny thing is you went from trucking now
to autonomous trucks.
I mean, this is speaking of not being able
to connect the dots and, you know,
your life in the next 10 years
could take very interesting directions
that are very difficult to,
first of all, us meeting is a funny little thing
given the things I’m working on with robots currently.
But, you know, it may not relate to trucks at all.
There’s a, at a certain point,
autonomous trucks are just robots.
And then it starts getting into a conversation
about the roles of robots in society.
Yeah, and the roles of humans and robots.
And that interplay is right up your alley.
As somebody who deeply cares about humans
and have somehow found themselves studying robots.
Yeah, no, it’s crazy.
I mean, even four or five years ago,
I would, if you had asked me
if I was gonna be studying trucking still,
I would have said no.
And so my advice is, I think if I was gonna give advice,
you know, is, you know,
you can’t connect the dots looking forward.
You just gotta follow what interests you, you know?
And I think we downplay, right,
that when we talk to, you know, kids,
especially, you know, if you have some bright gifted kid
that gets identified as like, oh, you could go somewhere.
Then we’re like, we feed them stuff.
You’re like, we’ll learn the piano
and learn another language, right?
Or learn robotics.
And then we tell other kids like,
oh, learn a trade, you know,
like figure out what’s gonna pay well.
And not that there’s anything against trades.
I think everyone should learn like manual skills
to make things.
I think it’s incredibly satisfying and wonderful,
and we need more of that.
But also, you know, tell, you know, all kids,
it’s okay to like take a class in something random
that you don’t think you’re gonna get
any economic return on.
Well, because maybe you will end up going into a trade,
but that class that you took in studio art
is gonna mean that, you know,
you look at buildings differently, right?
Or you end up sort of putting your own stamp on,
you know, woodworking, you know?
It just, I think that’s the key is like,
follow, you know, it’s cheesy
because everybody says, follow your passion.
But you know, we say that, and then we just, you know,
the 90% of what people hear is, you know,
what’s the return on investment for that, you know?
It’s like, you’re a human being.
Like things interest you, music interests you,
literature interests you, video games interests you,
like follow it, you know?
Go grab a kayak and go into the pool.
Go do something really, no, don’t do that.
Go do something stupid and something you’ll regret
a lot later.
My poor mother, thank God she didn’t know.
Well, let me ask, because for a lot of people work,
for me it is, quote unquote, work is a source of meaning.
And at the core of something we’ve been talking about
with jobs is meaning.
So the big ridiculous question,
what do you think is the meaning of life?
Do you think work for us humans in modern society
is as core to that meaning?
Is that something you think about in your work?
So the deeper question of meaning,
not just financial wellbeing and the quality of life,
but the deeper search for meaning.
Yeah, the meaning of life is love
and you can find love in your work.
Now, and I don’t think everybody can.
There are a lot of jobs out there that just, you know,
you do it for a paycheck.
And I think we do have to be honest about that.
There are a lot of people who don’t love their jobs
and we don’t have jobs that they’re gonna love.
And maybe that’s not a sort of realistic,
that’s a utopia, right?
But for those of us that have the luxury,
I mean, I think you love what you do that people say that.
I think the key for real happiness
is to love what you’re trying to achieve
and maybe love trying to build a company
and make a lot of money just for the sake of doing that.
But I think the people who are really happy
and have great impacts, they love what they do
because it has an impact on the world
that they think is, it expresses that love, right?
And that could be at a counseling center,
that could be in your community,
that could be sending people to Mars, you know.
Well, I also think it doesn’t necessarily,
the expression of love isn’t necessary
about helping other people directly.
There’s something about craftsmanship and skill
as we’ve talked about,
that’s almost like you’re celebrating humanity
by like searching for mastery in the task,
in the simple, like, especially tasks that people outside me
see as menial, as not important.
Nevertheless, searching for mastery,
for excellence in that task.
There’s something deeply human to that
and also fulfilling that just like driving a truck
and getting damn good at it.
Like, you know, the best who’s ever lived
and driving the truck and taking pride in that,
that’s deeply meaningful.
And also like a real celebration of humanity
and a real show of love, I think, for humanity.
Yeah, I just had my floors redone
and the guy who did it was an artist.
You know, he sanded these old 100 year old floors
and made them look gorgeous and this is craft.
That’s love right there.
Yeah, I mean, he showed us some love.
The product was just like, is enriching our lives.
Steve, this was an amazing conversation.
We’ve covered a lot of ground, your work,
just like you said, impossible to connect the dots,
but I’m glad you did all the amazing work you did.
You’re exploring human nature at the core
of what America is, the blue collar America.
So thank you for your work.
Thank you for the care and the love you put in your work.
And thank you so much for spending
your valuable time with me.
I appreciate it, Lex.
I’m a big fan, so it’s just been great to be on.
Thanks for listening to this conversation
with Steve Vasile.
To support this podcast,
please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now let me leave you with some words
from Napoleon Hill.
If you cannot do great things,
do small things in a great way.
Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.