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Jun 22

These Truckers Work Alongside the Coders Trying to Eliminate Their Jobs – Bloomberg

Just before Stefan Seltz-Axmacher offers a job to an engineer at Starsky Robotics Inc., a driverless trucking startup in San Francisco, he gives them the talk.

This is a company that employs truck drivers, is how the talk begins. The coders are sometimes taken abackthis differs from the usual change-the-world spiel deployed in hiring meetings. Truckers have very different ideas and different experiences from people like you, Seltz-Axmacher continues. Statistically speaking, many of them are Trump voters. They will say things that you may find startling. Not in a malicious way, but because people from, say, rural West Virginia talk differently than people from San Francisco. Can you handle that?

Not everybody can, Seltz-Axmacher says over beers in Fort Lauderdale, where Starsky does some of its testing. And thats OK.

Most driverless vehicle operations, including those at Ford Motor Co. and Alphabet Inc.s Waymo, are focused on developing cars or trucks that operate with no human oversight at all, or level 4 autonomy. The idea is that a passenger could safely take a nap, send a text, or tie one on while the software worries about the road, but that kind of freedom could be decades away. Seltz-Axmacher, Starskys co-founder and chief executive officer, whos featured in this weeks Decrypted podcast, is attempting something thats both more modest and, potentially, more disruptive to U.S. employment. His company has designed an artificial intelligence system for big-rig trucks that makes them mostly self-sufficient on highways, and then, when its time to exit onto local roads, allows them to be taken over and driven from a remote operations center. The plan is to eventually employ dozens of drivers, each of whom will keep an eye on a few trucks at once, sitting before arrays of monitors livestreaming views of windshields and mirrors. The companys name is a reference to a CB radio slang term for when drivers work in teamsthat is, like the title characters of the 1970s TV series Starsky & Hutch.

Most of Starskys AI rivals are focusing exclusively on research, logging as many miles and as much performance data as possible. Seltz-Axmachers trucks are still in beta, toobut theyre already earning revenue, carrying containers full of goods along U.S. highways. While the remote-control system develops, two Starsky employees ride in each cab: a software engineer in the passenger seat, keeping an eye on the algorithms, and a truck driver behind the wheel. This proximity is why theres a second talk.

Mixing blue-collar workers with people who have postdocs is hard

We hire truckers, Seltz-Axmacher tells prospective drivers right before offering them a job. But we also have a lot of engineers in Silicon Valley. Everything youve heard about San Franciscoits all basically true. There is something called raw denim, and in San Francisco people wear it, which means that some of your colleagues will pay up to $300 for a pair of blue jeans. They sometimes drink $7 lattes, too. Many of your co-workers will not be from the U.S. They will have accents. Can you handle that?

The drivers all say yes, but really, not everyone can. Since Starskys founding in 2015, Seltz-Axmacher has parted ways with two of the eight drivers hes hired. One used an anti-gay slur to refer to a fellow driver, which worried Seltz-Axmacher because Starsky headquarters is on Folsom Streethome to the Folsom Street Fair, the famous leather festival held every September. His first day was Wednesday, and his last day was Thursday, Seltz-Axmacher says. Mixing blue-collar workers with people who have postdocs is hard.

Jeff Runions, head driver for Starsky Robotics.

Photographer: Damien Maloney for Bloomberg Businessweek

Economically speakingthat is, in the most brutal termstruckers are disposable. Almost anyone can become a professional driver with a month or so of training, and most dont stick around for long; median pay is about $40,000 per year, and the work is often unhealthy, painful, and lonely. Software engineers, on the other hand, are some of the best-paid, hardest-to-hire employees in the modern economy. The variety that Seltz-Axmacher employsspecialists in AI and machine learningare even better paid and even harder to hire. Google has been known to pay its self-driving car engineers millions or even tens of millions. Starskys coders dont make that much, but the point remains: In its cabs, side by side, are representatives of some of the most and least promising careers in America.

Starskys offices have high ceilings and two dozen open-plan desks. Its not fancythe furniture is cheap, the carpets look old, and the coffee comes out of plastic podsbut the companys engineers come from some of the worlds top research universities, including Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, and the University of California at Berkeley. Of the six truckers on staff, one or two are usually in San Francisco, and the rest are on the highway. We basically have people from two worlds, neither of which has ever talked to each other, says Seltz-Axmacher, who grew up in suburban Maryland. Thats kind of whats wrong with this country. His hope is that Starsky, by employing truckers who oversee trucks from offices and work alongside engineers, can help bridge the divide.

Of course, Starsky is a for-profit business, not a truth and reconciliation commission. Its one of a handful of companies trying to seize a piece of the trucking industrys $700 billion in annual revenue. Starsky has raised $5 million in seed capital from, among others, Y Combinator, the Silicon Valley venture fund and incubator. Its competitors include Embark, which is also backed by Y Combinator, and Otto, a startup that raised no outside capital and had fewer than 100 employees when Uber Technologies Inc. acquired it for $700 million. (Otto is the subject of a lawsuit that claims its co-founder stole technology from Alphabet, Googles parent.) A fourth company, Peloton Technology, has raised $78 million to pursue adding some autonomous capabilities to conventional trucks. There are also self-driving big-rig programs inside Alphabet, Tesla, Volvo, and Daimler. All of these companies want to avoid alarming truckers, their employers, and regulators. But if any of them succeed, they will drastically reshape the labor market in one of the countrys most important industries.

Three and a half million Americans drive trucks for a living, making it one of the most common jobs in America. The larger trucking economyincluding cargo brokers, truck manufacturers, truck stop waitresses, and so onaccounts for an additional 4 million jobs, according to the American Trucking Associations (ATA), a trade group. A huge proportion of them are threatened by a decade of driverless research coming out of universities and Silicon Valley companies.

Marie Porter, a member of Starskys small driver crew.

Photographer: Damien Maloney for Bloomberg Businessweek

A truck traveling hundreds of miles to make a delivery represents an almost ideal application for the latest autonomous driving technologies. Long-haul truckers spend much of their time on interstate highways, where curves are gentle, lanes are well-defined, and pedestrians and bicyclesthe bane of any AI vehicle engineerare prohibited. Trucks are big and heavy, so theyre easier to outfit with special sensors needed to control them. All of this has caused trucking to be seen by automation experts, and in the popular press, as a test case for the impact of AI on employment. If a lot of long-haul truckers lose their jobs, then maybe lawyers and accountantswhose work is often repetitiveshould be worried, too. But a major difference between trucking and those fields is that its a job few Americans seem to actually want to do.

Truck tonnagethe weight of freight carriedis up by more than 30 percent in the U.S. since 2009, according to the ATA, while the industrys labor force has grown by about 10 percent. The trade group has estimated there are 48,000 open jobs, a figure thats expected to more than triple over the next decade. Its just more and more demand on the industry, and fewer people coming into it to drive the trucks, says Chris Spear, the ATAs CEO.

Theres a shortage, in part, because the industry wants it

Federal law limits truckers to 70 driving hours over eight consecutive days. But because drivers are paid by the mile rather than the hour, many fudge their time sheets to drive more hours. On a good day, an entry-level driver might make about $15 an hour. On a bad dayone spent in traffic or sitting in a port waiting for paperworkhe might make just a few dollars an hour. Drivers generally spend several weeks on the road at a time, sleeping in their cabs at rest areas. They gain weight and get lonely. The annualized turnover rate among drivers at large truckload fleets is 71 percent, the ATA says. Most people who try it out decide, given the pay and the conditions, its not a very good job, says Stephen Burks, an economist at the University of Minnesota at Morris and a former trucker himself. People are voting with their feet.

Photographers (clockwise from top left): Damien Maloney, Laurel Golio, Lucas Foglia, and Carlos Saavedra, all for Bloomberg Businessweek

Many of us, when we think of trucking, dont see the industry this way. We think of freedom and the open road. We think of Convoy, the novelty country song that made it to No.1 on the Billboard pop chart in 1976, or of Smokey and the Bandit, which would have been the nations highest-grossing film of 1977 if not for Star Wars. We think of a job thats necessary and steeped in Americana.

Whatever truth these ideas once possessed has faded. The union-friendly rules that once helped make trucking a well-paid blue-collar job were dismantled by a series of reforms, culminating when Jimmy Carter signed the Motor Carrier Act and deregulated the industry in 1980. Membership in the mighty Teamsters union plummeted, and the short, regular routes that allowed truckers to go home most nights were replaced by a system in which truckers are treated a lot like Uber drivers. The amount that theyre getting paid per mile is really a small fraction of what they were getting, says Michael Belzer, an economist at Wayne State University and a former driver who wrote a book on the industry called Sweatshops on Wheels. Its not an exaggeration at this point to suggest that its half the pay.

Thanks in part to the advent of mundane technologies, such as automatic transmissions, that make driving easier to learn, the industry has moved away from employing career truckers and toward a model of paying little more than minimum wage and constantly replacing the drivers the industry churns out. Commercial licensing schools charge about $5,000 for a five-week course, but trucking companies will advance applicants the fees and then deduct the tuition from the new hires salary. Theres a shortage, in part, because the industry wants it, says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who studies the industry. Its cheaper and easier to manage the problem through high turnover.

This has turned trucking into a kind of economic safety valvework you do when youre out of options. The industry puts a more positive spin on this. Theres a lot of pride that goes into moving the nations freight, says Spear. But in a 2015 video produced by the ATA, the groups chief economist Bob Costello suggested lowering the interstate truck driving age, currently 21, as a way to better compete for young people who would otherwise choose military service. Often its a job of last resort, he acknowledged. In other words, its pretty much the opposite of being a coder.

View from the drivers seat of the remote driving console.

Photographer: Damien Maloney for Bloomberg Businessweek


Jeff Runions, a Starsky truck driver, is sitting in the front seat of Buster, a late-model Freightliner Cascadia that Starsky leases and has modded out with cameras and sensors. He glances at Kevin Keogh, an Irish-born AI specialist who previously worked at Jaguar Land Rover and whos been tapping out a few last-minute adjustments to the Starsky code while Runions does the driving.

Good when you are.

Runions flips a blue switch on a little panel bolted onto the center console. All right, he says. Shes hot. Runions cautiously takes his hands off the wheel and slides his foot off the accelerator. We are just west of Fort Lauderdale, cruising up Floridas Highway 27 on a windy morning in late May, with the Everglades stretching out on either side. Runions says were near a stretch of road truckers call Alligator Alley, and sure enough we soon see an enormous dead gator on the shoulder.

Starsky is testing in other states, but Florida is an attractive proving ground, because its especially relaxed about driverless vehicles. Unlike Nevada and California, for example, Florida doesnt require a special permit to conduct tests on public roads, or any additional insurance, or even a human being behind the wheel, as long as a licensed driver is operating the vehicle by remote control. Nevada laws are written so the state could allow remote-control driving in the future; in Florida, any licensed driver can do it today without asking permission, which is exactly what Starsky intends to do later this year.

In the meantime, there are still lots of problems to solvelike wind. Not long into our drive, a gust hits our left side, and the truck lurches toward the shoulder; the wheel turns left, overcorrecting and sending us drifting into the next lane. The experience is terrifying, although Runions and Keogh seem unfazed.

Its got to adjust, thats all, Runions says, explaining that the combination of wind and weighttodays load is 20 tons, more than in other testsrepresents a novel challenge. He keeps his hand on the blue switch and his eyes on his side mirror to make sure we dont cut off anyone. He looks tense, but the truck finds the right lane after a few seconds.

Keogh says everything is normal. Starskys software is written to determine how hard the wind is blowing, he says, and then to steer against the wind and stay in the lane. But early on in a session, the computer isnt fully calibrated yet. Runions offers a comparison: You know how you are in the morning before you have your coffee?

A few minutes later, he and Keogh seem comfortable, cracking jokes about the size of the alligators near the farm where Keogh grew up in Ireland. At another point, Keogh says, I think weve zoned in on the correct control parameters.

Have you, now? Runions shoots back, and then adds, Im learning to speak Irish.

Remote driving console at Starskys San Francisco office.

Photographer: Damien Maloney for Bloomberg Businessweek

The two men have a good rapport, but they couldnt be more different. Keogh is 27, graduated from Dublins prestigious Trinity College, and got a masters degree studying robotics. Runions, who has a shaved head and a salt-and-pepper goatee, is 58 and didnt graduate high school. When asked how he got into long-haul trucking, he responds instantly. White Line Fever, he says, without taking his eyes off the road. Watch that movie. In the film, Carrol Jo CJ Hummer leads a strike against an abusive transportation conglomerate, Glass House, that culminates when CJ drives a bullet-riddled truck straight into corporate headquarters, a literal glass house, and is shot in the face.

Runions had a rough childhood. He grew up in the foster care system in Wrigleyville, in Chicago, back when it was a bad neighborhood. He partied a lot, got into trouble, and then, at 16, got kicked out of the house. Ive been on my own since then, he says. He took a job doing construction work in Savannah, Ga., and eventually found his way to a job at Great Dane, the trailer manufacturer.

Runions started driving full time in 1979 and eventually married a truck driverhe and his wife, Marlene, met at a truck stop in Atlantain 1999and has had pretty much every job you can have in the business. It sucks, he says about life on the road. I was gone 21 days a month. If you stayed here for a couple days, youd know what Im talking about. He barely saw Marlene and put on 75 pounds.

Starsky pays its truckers about $55,000 per year and gives them benefits and stock. Runions, as the companys top driver, earns more and has fairly sane hours. He sleeps in his own bed, in a small house outside of Jacksonville, most nights. Some people are really negative about driverless trucks, says Runions, who read about Starskys technology and applied for the job online. Then you tell them theyre going to have 40 hours a week instead of being gone all the time. People think youre taking their jobs, but youre not.

Seltz-Axmacher, who is watching us from the back of the cab, nods in agreement. He envisions climate-controlled driver centers, in towns like Jacksonville, where people like Runions will work regular shifts in front of computers, without the greasy food or loneliness that has traditionally gone along with being a trucker. Starsky, he believes, has the ability to make 3.5 million peoples lives a lot better.

Not everyone agrees, of course. In May, drivers for Airgas Inc., which distributes industrial gases, went on strike in part because of a proposed contract provision that could allow the company, a subsidiary of the Paris-based Air Liquide, to use autonomous trucks. And in New York City, the union-backed group New York Communities for Change is mounting a campaign to urge the federal Department of Transportation to cease all funding for autonomous vehicle research until a plan is put in place to protect any displaced drivers.

If Silicon Valley companies arent forced to consider what happens to todays drivers, we will all lose our jobs, says Rolando Perdono, one of the activists. We wont have anything to hold on to. Perdono, 45, was born in the Dominican Republic. His English isnt great, he didnt make it through high school, and he has five kids to support. Hes been behind a wheel since he came to the U.S. 16 years ago and currently works as a local delivery driver for a cleaning-supply company. Perdono doesnt love what he does for a living and would be game to be trained for a job working with driverless trucks. But in the meantime he argues that his current job is worth defending. Being a driver is what I know, he says. Thats what I like about it.

One of Starskys semi-autonomous trucks.

Photographer: Damien Maloney for Bloomberg Businessweek

There are three schools of thought about the long-term effects of AI on employment. The first argues that advances in robotics will lead to improvements in productivity similar to those that occurred after other inventionssuch as sewing machines, combine tractors, and washing machines, which freed up workers to do less repetitive (and better-paid) labor. The second school worries that the same technologies will require so few jobs that theyll create a permanent underclass. The third school argues that its all hype and the advances are decades away.

Most people in Silicon Valley subscribe to either the first or second school. Much of the rest of the country, including many truckers, favor the third. I can tell the difference between a dead porcupine and a dead raccoon, and I know I can hit a raccoon, but if I hit a porcupine, Im going to lose all the tires on the truck on that side, says Tom George, a veteran driver who now trains other Teamsters for the unions Washington-Idaho AGC Training Trust. It will take a long time and a lot of software to program that competence into a computer.

The raccoon-porcupine divide is one of many in which computers may not work particularly well. But that doesnt mean a system couldnt be designed that would allow trucks to drive themselves most of the time. Viscelli, the University of Pennsylvania expert, says self-driving trucks will hit the road in a matter of single-digit years, and believes that theyll allow the industry to eventually shed a few hundred thousand jobs.

Seltz-Axmacher acknowledges that companies such as his could ultimately make traditional trucking jobs a thing of the past, and hes not sure what he or anyone else should do about it, beyond trying to be decent to the workers he employs now. Hes been reading about universal basic incomethe idea, popular in techie circles, of simply paying everyone enough to live on.

But ultimately, Seltz-Axmacher believes, the tools hes developing will be good for truckers. He cites a new book by Garry Kasparov, Deep Thinking, in which the chess great observes that middling chess players who play with the help of a standard computer are reliably better than either grandmasters or supercomputers by themselves. I think humans and technology working together are always going to be better than either one alone, Seltz-Axmacher says. But maybe thats just because I like humans.

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These Truckers Work Alongside the Coders Trying to Eliminate Their Jobs - Bloomberg

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