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It’s dusk and Robert Hermann is driving an eighteen-wheeler down a narrow road lined with fields and neat hedges. We’re in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia, and the silhouettes of the Coast Mountains loom on the horizon. As the truck passes farms and barns, Hermann, sixty-one, rolls down the window and inhales—animal manure and moist dirt. “Smells like money,” he says, and laughs.
Hermann has been driving trucks for thirty-five years. He’s carried tomatoes and gasoline and wood chips and firehoses across the continent, BC to Louisiana, Los Angeles to Toronto. On this night in early May, Hermann and a group of other truckers are preparing to haul 110,000 chickens from a farm near Abbotsford to an abattoir in the middle of Vancouver. The birds are thirty-nine days old and it’s time for slaughter.
He steers past a sign that reads, “do not enter biosecurity in effect” and pulls up to two long aluminum barns. “I’ll tell you right off the bat,” Hermann says as he manoeuvres the truck, “I hate automatics.” He’s filling in for another driver and he borrowed the vehicle. “I hate it!” he says as it stutters through the gears.
A van arrives and a crew of chicken catchers pours out, ready for the overnight shift. They hunch over lit cigarettes, backpacks slung on their shoulders as they wait under the yard light. Hermann gets the truck into position and turns on the radio—he needs to wait until the cargo is loaded. Inside one of the barns, the chicken catchers pace up and down, grabbing birds by the legs and stuffing them into cages.
Once the chickens are loaded—Hermann’s taking 5,700 this trip—we spend an hour driving along the Trans-Canada Highway to Vancouver. We arrive downtown, and Hermann expertly steers the hulking truck along a tight alley, through a narrow warehouse door, and into a dusty, high-ceilinged arena. Then there’s a lot of backing up, pulling forward, unhooking and rehooking the trailer. It’s weighed and, finally, ready to be unloaded. Throughout all of these tasks, Hermann talks, telling me about his job and his life. He and his wife have two foster kids to support, and he was diagnosed with prostate cancer last year. His first wife died of breast cancer in 2014. Before that, he worked night shifts so he could care for her—“play nursemaid,” as he puts it—or just nap by his wife’s side during her long, difficult days. Even now that she’s gone, he still works mostly nights. It allows him to have supper with his new “sweetie,” whom he married last year.
The screeching of thousands of chickens reaches a crescendo as a forklift operator removes tray after tray of cages. After they’re all out, Hermann hoses down the trailer. Feathers fly in the air as though we’re in the midst of a giant pillow fight. He then swings himself into the truck and settles into the driver’s seat once again. It’s back to the farm for the next load.
Hermann is just one of the thousands of truckers who can be found on BC’s roads at any given time. In Canada, more than 1 in every 100 workers is a truck driver, some 300,000 people—it’s the second most common occupation reported by men. In 2010, truck transportation contributed $17.1 billion to our country’s gdp. It’s a similar scene in the United States, where about 3.5 million people drive trucks for a living.
But the job isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the hours spent yakking on the CB radio, the straight runs across the country. And many drivers predict that the days of watching the miles slip by under glinting chrome grills will soon be over altogether. Today, investors in Silicon Valley are pouring millions of dollars into making the first autonomous trucks, which will be able to drive and manage themselves, making humans unnecessary. “If they can get a computer to do my job,” Hermann says, “they can get a computer to do any job.”
Serghei Tulei first saw a glimpse of this future one day in May 2016. Tulei had worked in information technology in his native Moldova, but he got a job as a trucker after he immigrated to the US in 2011. On that day in May, he was driving along the chaotic I-280 freeway outside San Francisco, going about 90 kilometres per hour, and all around him, cars weaved in and out of the eight lanes of traffic. Tulei nervously looked down at a button on the dash that read, simply, “Engage.” He hesitated for a second, then pressed it. Then he let go of the steering wheel and allowed his hands to hover a few centimetres away. He sat back and watched as the truck took over, braking, accelerating, and steering all by itself.
Tulei had recently started working for an outfit called Otto, a company that is attempting to create fully autonomous trucks (Otto was acquired by Uber last summer for $680 million [US]). On his first hands-free drive, Tulei was testing whether the truck could stay in its lane. It would occasionally veer across the lines, requiring him to take over (like in any software test, Tulei says, “you are trying to find the bugs”). He drove mostly around the Bay Area, his hands off the wheel for twenty or thirty minutes at a time. His new job, in effect, was to help make truck driving obsolete.
In october 2016, a semi with California plates hurtled along the I-25 in Colorado, loaded with cases of Budweiser. It may have seemed unremarkable at first glance, just another of the 2.5 million trucks winding their way along US highways every year, but this semi had no head looking out from behind the dash. The only human on board was sitting comfortably in the rear of the cab. According to Otto, the truck drove by itself for 200 kilometres without human intervention, making the trip from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs the world’s first commercial delivery by a “self-driving” truck.
The question is no longer whether autonomous truck technology is possible, but how soon we’ll see it deployed en masse. Some tech company representatives say the new trucks may show up on North American roads in the next year or so. Others are less optimistic. But history is clear on one thing: once these changes start, they can move fast. One needs only to use a bank machine, order a pizza online, or buy a robotic vacuum cleaner to see how automated systems have replaced humans in everyday tasks.
The prospect of eliminating drivers recalls the plight of the elevator operator. Tens of thousands of people across North America were once employed to shuttle office workers up and down buildings. It was, for decades, a well-paying job. A 1945 elevator-operator strike in Manhattan showed New York City how important these workers were, as people in more than 1,500 buildings were left struggling with the stairs. Elevator operators were essential to society until, a few years later, they weren’t. Automatic elevators, which were cheaper and could run with little oversight, proliferated in the middle of the twentieth century. The number of elevator operators peaked in the 1950s and then, within a generation, all but disappeared.
A 2016 report from the Brookfield Institute at Ryerson University predicted that automation will threaten more than 40 percent of Canadian jobs across all industries in the next two decades. Truck drivers are high on the list, along with cashiers, salespeople, and other jobs in retail.
Companies invest in automation for a simple reason: humans are expensive. Labour represents roughly a third of transportation costs for truck fleets. Automation could give freight companies the ability to run trucks nearly twenty-four hours a day (driving time for humans is currently capped at thirteen hours per day in Canada and eleven in the US). Computers could also operate trucks more efficiently by preventing needless accelerating and braking, reducing fuel use, which amounts to a quarter of the cost of truck transport. Added to this is the benefit of limiting accidents caused by human error—a US Department of Transportation study found that drivers were responsible for nearly 90 percent of large truck crashes. In a 2013 report, the McKinsey Global Institute, an economic think tank, estimated that autonomous trucks could have a global economic impact—which includes efficiencies and labour savings—of between $100 and $500 billion (US) per year by 2025. In the report, they state, “We think it is possible that between 2017 and 2025, 10 to 30 percent of trucks sold could be at least partially autonomous.”
This article first appeared on thewalrus.ca
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