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The end of the open road

Speed read
  • New regulations require digital monitoring of long-distance truck drivers
  • Corporations use collected data to challenge worker autonomy
  • Other professions may soon experience similar oversight

There are nearly 2 million long-haul truck drivers in the US today. Ninety-five percent male, these truckers take pride in a hypermasculine culture of independence.

Drivers accumulate knowledge through years of on-the-job experience and view themselves as captains of their own vessels with the authority to make decisions and manage their own affairs.

<strong>King of the road?</strong> Monitoring systems are everywhere — in the home, in the office, and now even in the big rig. Are the gains from observation worth the losses?

As Karen Levy, assistant professor of information science at Cornell University, discovered in the four years she spent studying the US long-distance transport industry, many drivers chose the profession precisely because it offered a solitary workplace free from interfering co-workers and micromanaging bosses looking over their shoulders.

But new technologies combined with new regulations and concerns about highway safety mean that truckers are becoming some of the most regulated and most intimately surveilled workers in the nation, with consequences for their health, safety, and even social and family lives.

Big brother is your co-pilot

For nearly 100 years, commercial drivers have been required to limit their driving hours in order to prevent the fatigue that leads to accidents. Historically this has been accomplished via paper logbooks in which drivers record their driving, sleeping, loading, and off-duty time.

But logbooks aren’t inspected for days or weeks after the fact and are notoriously easy to falsify. Many of the drivers Levy interviewed easily admitted to ‘adjusting’ their logs to make up time lost to traffic jams or breakdowns.

A new rule published by the US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) in 2015 requires that electronic logging devices (ELDs) be used to track the hours-of-service of commercial drivers and report them directly to authorities.

Though full compliance with the rule is not required until the end of 2017, by 2016 there were already 1.5 million ELDs installed in vehicles across the country, primarily in those managed by larger firms.

Truckers are primarily opposed to monitoring — it’s a difficult fit with their work, their occupational culture, and their ability to make money.  But it’s hard to say they shouldn’t be monitored. These people are working themselves to death. ~Karen Levy

Government regulations are only concerned with the drivers’ hours worked, but the technology makes it simple and cost-effective for companies to integrate the mandated ELDs into a wider ‘fleet management system’ that also monitors metrics such as driving speed, braking, fuel use, and location. Some even include driver-facing cameras and biometric measurement devices that assess drivers’ fatigue and attention.

“The way automation is felt in the industry now is as an intrusion into workers’ livelihoods and bodies, through systems that monitor their biophysical states in fairly intimate ways,” says Levy.

One of the most important aspects, according to Levy, is that companies are now less reliant on drivers to report local conditions, like traffic and weather, or even how tired they are. Digital monitoring and data collection allows companies to track drivers from moment to moment and to directly challenge employee’s movements and choices.

Onboard GPS units transmit precise locations for dispatchers to check against weather reports. Automatic logging means headquarters knows how long a driver has been traveling. They can even compare what a driver reports about local conditions to a ‘breadcrumb’ map that shows other trucks traveling successfully in the same area.

“By converting work practices into ostensibly objective, morally neutral records of human action, information technologies legitimate certain types of knowledge and experience, while rendering others invisible,” says Levy.

Who’s number one?

Just as the pervasive adoption of the smartphone has blurred the line between home and work for many employees, the new level of surveillance that comes with ELDs reaches beyond the highway and into drivers’ lives and families.

The masses of real-time data flowing into a company’s headquarters from hundreds or thousands of operating vehicles arms managers with new tools for performance assessment that are then used to rank drivers against each other.

<strong>Eyes on the road. </strong> Electronic on-board recorders allow for accurate monitoring of trucks and their drivers. Drivers find the devices are encroaching on their independence, one of the main reasons they enter the trucking ranks in the first place. Courtesy ISAAC Instrument, Inc.. <a href= 'https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode'> (CC BY-SA 3.0)</a>

These scorecards track safety records, hours of service, fuel efficiency, or other performance indicators. Shared not only between co-workers but also with truckers’ spouses and families, these rankings use social ties to pressure drivers to comply with organizational goals.

Levy believes these changes are not exclusive to the trucking industry and offer insight into the future of other professional spheres.

“As industries expand their geographic reach, remote managers increasingly rely on information communication systems to control far-flung resources, including employee activities,” she says.

Technology offers new ways for organizations to oversee the work of their employees, at a level of detail not previously practicable. Data collection and manipulation is just one aspect of the shifting balance of power in modern organizations.

“I think that if we try to use technological solutions to address problems that are, at root, economic and political, we’re likely to come up short. Technology is often seen as an easy fix, but it’s rarely a sufficient one.”

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