These are the good old days

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I was recently privileged to sit with a number of bright young women who were on their way to become truck drivers. This was part of a Trucking HR Canada event that brought together mentors and drivers. The women at my table were part of the MicroSkills development program in west-end Toronto that actively recruits unemployed or under-employed women, subsidizes their training, and sets them on a path towards an AZ licence.

I had to ask my table companions, “How does it feel to be the last generation of truckers?”

“What do you mean?,” one asked.

“Self-driving, automated trucks are being tested right now. Technologies are being developed that will replace truck drivers.”

“But that’s a long way off, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes and no,” I replied.

What I meant was that truckers won’t be going obsolete any time soon. These gals will no doubt have careers ahead of them. Even with accelerating advancements in artificial intelligence, trucks will still need competent operators that can take over if the lane markings are obscured; when they arrive at the destination someone will have to back it in, uncouple and hook to another load–and probably still have to help unload the cargo (no robots to do that yet).

But the next generation of truckers will be more like operators and systems specialists than bona fide truck drivers. The first of these “drivers” will have to be able to take control of the tractor trailer, but eventually, the steering wheel and windshield and will be replaced with a joy stick and a computer screen, and finally just a kill switch, and perhaps even sooner than, that a robot will do all the driving…like the Sky Train in Vancouver—no operator required (safer that way, anyway).

An AZ licence with a clean CVOR and a few years of experience used to be all you needed to get a job with a good company anywhere. That’s still the case but for how long? Last night a cast member on Saturday Night Live made the following quip: “Truck driving used to be one of those jobs where you could say ‘Those trucks ain’t gonna be able to drive themselves’. Well in a couple of years, those trucks will be able to drive themselves.”

We maybe not in a couple of years, but the writing is on the wall. In a couple of years there will be all kinds of trial platooning and automated driving going on in this industry, studies at first but then real-life engagements with some fleets within five years, and who knows what the state of self-driving technology will be in ten years.

I consider trucking a noble and meaningful profession but the romance is eroding quickly. Some of us got diesel in our blood, but things like satellite tracking and nonsense like EOBRs are the norm in a trade that once prided itself on independence and self-reliance. Believe me, I love my automatic transmission after years of double clutching, but some schools are teaching students on automatics only (Humber College is one exception). Don’t you think truck drivers should at least have an idea of how to shift gears?

Stan Campbell of Trucker Radio was the moderator of the “Connect and Share” event put on by Trucking HR Canada.. “The days of Smokey and the Bandit are gone,” he announced. Well, yes and no again. The days of gypsy trucking, dodging the scales and laissez-faire, throttle down, out-of-hours and marginal operations may be behind us, but if you mean someone who owns their own iron, drives what they want, when they want, how they want, whether working as a broker or as an independent—those drivers aren’t quite gone yet.

My point is that the classical role of a trucker is changing. Whether you’re an owner/op or a company driver, savour your workplace becase things are chaning fast. There’s something great about driving heavy equipment and being in control of a nice piece of technology. But for how much longer? I only have about 30 months left before I’m put out to pasture, but what to tell the younguns starting out? Keep it on the rubbers, I tell them, and enjoy your time, it’s a great job!

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Harry Rudolfs has worked as a dishwasher, apprentice mechanic, editor, trucker, foreign correspondent and taxi driver. He's written hundreds of articles for North American and European journals and newspapers, including features for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Life and CBC radio.

With over 30 years experience in the trucking industry he's hauled cars, steel, lumber, chemicals, auto parts and general freight as well as B-trains. He holds an honours BA in creative writing and humanities, summa cum laude.

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  • It’ll be 20-25 years before this starts impacting anyones career. The first time some autonomous big rig crushes a family of five in an SUV will set the entire thing back a decade as the lawyers and politicians panic.