Every culture has a mythology. It tells us about how we see ourselves. For example, America has two distinctly different worlds of work. On the one hand, we have highly educated and highly paid professionals… lawyers, doctors, financial experts, consultants. On the other hand today, we have highly structured and low paying work… clerks, cashiers, janitors, fast food workers, fulfillment centers, call centers. That’s the reality, but which one is our mythology? Neither! In our heart of hearts, we all want to be… Cowboys!
Cowboys? As in leather chaps, living with cattle, sleeping on the ground, and really bad food? Well… no, not exactly. But that’s the thing about mythology. It’s not meant to be real. It’s about image and style. And for American, Cowboys are a symbol of freedom. And Individuality.
When Americans think of independence, the lone, independent Cowboy, wandering America’s great open spaces on his trusty steed. Maybe our lack of remaining open spaces makes the image of the Cowboy even more important. Even the term “Cowboy” MEANS and independent outsider, a disruptor!
Remember the series Mad Men? If I said that Dan Draper was a Madison Avenue Cowboy, you would instantly know what I meant. He’s independent, he can look after himself, he has rugged good looks… you can see him as a Marlboro Man, smoking on his horse, just as the sun sets on 500 head of cattle. Cowboy.
But Cowboys have been gone for a very long time. Starting in the 1970s, that image of the independent, self-reliant worker evolved from Cowboy to Independent Truckers. Cowboys had open spaces and Truckers had the open road. Cowboys got cattle to market, and Truckers hauled loads. As independent as they were, Cowboys would get together for annual cattle drives, and sit around the campfire swapping stories about rustlers (who could steal their livelihood). Truckers would form up into convoys, talk to each other on their CB (citizen’s band) radios, and swap stories of outwitting the smokies (who could steal their livelihood).
As Cowboys gave way to Truckers, Truckers must now give way to factory workers. Oh, Truckers will still live on, it’s a while before the robots take over. But they will no longer be Independent Truckers. In 2018, a new law took effect that requires Truckers to use an Electronic Logging Device or ELD. Now, wherever a Trucker goes, the ELD goes with him. And the Truckers ain’t happy.
In the old (old, old) days, Many Truckers were independent. They owned their own trucks, they took contracts, delivered goods, and hopefully made a profit. With a bit of luck, an experienced Trucker could make a good living. Knowing the best roads, where construction and congestion were, being a good judge of the weather, and knowing where local police were more… forgiving, made the difference between success and failure.
But GPS replaced experience, trucks became too expensive for independents to afford, and truck owners wanted to know more about what truckers were doing with their very expensive equipment. Big trucking companies did have reasons to worry. There are a lot of accidents with big rigs. Owners can be fined for many issues. Efficient fuel use is vital to making a profit. and of course, late deliveries mean that everyone is fined. Truckers once took (semi-legal) shortcuts, occasionally exceeded the speed limit, carried a bit more cargo than was strictly legal, or even took the occasional nap by the side of the road. Now every “irregularity” must be explained.
While Truckers always had to keep some sort of log of their activities (if only to track expenses), for most Truckers the ELD means you have “Big Brother” riding with you. The ELD may question you in real-time, as it tracks you minute by minute. Any variation from the set of actions the software believes that you should be performing, and you will get a call asking for an explanation. And you may be fined. The open road isn’t open anymore.
The Cowboy died away when America’s open range was closed off and turned into farms. Of course, technology had a hand in their demise. With steam locomotives, you could get cattle to market sooner, without losing weight from their long journey.
Once a computerized manager watches your every move, the old Trucker image soon fades away. ELDs will continue to take on management responsibilities, diminishing the role of the Trucker. Eventually, the long haul truck just becomes a component in a distributed factory. And Truckers become factory workers. The transportation industry is rebranding itself as Logistics, de-emphasizing people and vehicles, placing more value on software and data. The next logical step is to replace Truckers completely, with self-driving vehicles.
The ELD may give the trucking industry what it desperately needs, more reliable and less expensive methods of moving goods. But once the decisions of the ELD are valued more highly than the experience of the Trucker, it becomes a small step from telling the Trucker what to do to just driving the truck on its own.
Is this the Last Roundup for America? Is the Trucker headed for the same fate as the Cowboy? Tell us what you think!