Trucking's State of Surveillance: Special report

Updated Jan 1, 2024

When owner-operator Danny Derrick started driving trucks professionally in 1968, he kept in touch with dispatch by placing a collect call from a payphone around 10 every morning. In those days, the operator would ring the dispatcher collect and tell him who was calling and from where.

“They'd get a call from either Abraham Lincoln or Robert E. Lee," Derrick said, and if they "weren’t too far down the road from where you were supposed to be," the dispatcher would hang up to decline the charges. If Lee or Lincoln revealed they were a ways off target, dispatch would accept the charges and give the former President or rebel general a talking to. 

In the 55 years that followed, technologies of many forms have transformed every aspect of American life, from the trucks and phones themselves to the places drivers park and how those off hours are spent. All along, Derrick has kept trucking. 

The 1969 moon landing and subsequent lunar efforts might have been the high-water mark for hardware -- physical, built things that need hauling by trucks. Since then, software has eaten the world, with by some estimates as much as 10% of GDP coming directly from the sector. When you have a hammer, all your problems can begin to look like nails. Emboldened by increasingly sophisticated, ubiquitous and easy-to-use software, government and business leaders look to impose law and order via apps, gadgets, location tracking and more. 

Societal, government and industry leaders looked at the American trucker, road warriors oft-invoked as an emblem of American freedom, and saw plenty of nails to be hammered. The result, no surprise to any Overdrive reader or other professional trucker, has been a steady chipping away of driver autonomy. 

Owner-operator Derrick’s word, that he’ll deliver on-time or take appropriate action on any obstacles along the way, is no longer good enough.

In “Data Driven: Truckers, technology and the new workplace surveillance,” Karen Levy, associate professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University, sets out to describe the human implications of wielding technology as a hammer against workers who know their own bodies, their own business, and how they like to roll. Though she’s an Ivy League professor writing in part for a broadly academic crowd, her deeply researched book goes to great lengths to empathize with the truck operator. She sees professional drivers as uniquely singled out by government regulation and commercial coercion. 

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“The economic realities of trucking have long depended on truckers’ discretion, including flexible recordkeeping routines and the ability to direct their own work in the face of unpredictable and often inhospitable conditions,” her thesis statement reads. “But digital enforcement doesn’t address these realities; it papers over them.” 

And isn’t that just the problem as you might hear it from a driver at most any truck stop, whether they survived the payphone days or not?

Levy stresses that society runs on a little rule-breaking here, a little rule-bending there, and that no other profession she’s encountered has to deal with as high a level of to-the-letter enforcement as truckers. 

“Rules are shaped by social, cultural, and economic realities, and are almost never as simple as they might seem on paper,” she writes. “As an intuitive example, consider how you’d feel if you were ticketed by a police officer for driving sixty-six miles per hour when the speed limit is sixty-five.” 

The book cover of Data Driven, by Karen LevyLevy's book is available in audiobook form as well as hardback.She's deft with analogies like that, laying the groundwork for the wider public’s appreciation of the views of many in trucking. A four-wheeler would throw a fit about that ticket at 66, but go a half-hour over on your 14 in efforts to get to a receiver before the facility closes. ... Well, just hope you don’t have to cross a scale before you get there. 

Levy’s book focuses on the ELD mandate, first implemented for most in Overdrive’s audience of owner-operators and small fleets in 2017, the trucking world's reaction, and the broader implications that sprung from it. The mandate didn’t totally phase out “flexible recordkeeping” when it comes to the hours of service. Rather, it relocated the sites of resistance and circumvention. Further, the mandate created a basis for technology to further creep into trucking.

Habituated to required electronic transmission of logbook data to law enforcement, what comes next? Mandatory truck ID transmission? Full electronic inspections? Speed limiters? All can be seen as children, or technological outgrowths, of the ELD -- or, to track back further into the ancestry, the diesel electronic control module (ECM) that in part enabled it.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently underscored the creep of surveillance technologies with a broad call to the public for comment. The notice, published May 1, noted an intent to “better understand automated surveillance and management of workers, including its prevalence, purposes, deployment and impacts, as well as opportunities for federal agencies to work with employers, workers and other stakeholders to ensure that these systems do not undermine workers’ rights, opportunities, access, health or safety.”

"“It’s an invasion of privacy.” --Owner-operator Philip Rindelhardt on why he'll never use an in-cab, driver-facing camera, in the next part of this special report 

The OSTP notice specifically referenced AI-enabled camera techs monitoring truckers' "eye movements" but also techs that track location. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, in its comment to OSTP, was quick to point out the irony that the federal government itself requires a form of such “automated surveillance” with the ELD mandate. 

“OOIDA appreciates that the OSTP" -- again, an office of the White House, i.e. a part of our executive branch of government itself -- is "examining the potentially harmful effects of automated surveillance on workers,” the association said. But, given the ELD mandate and potential rulemaking to proceed with revisions of it, “truckers have reason to doubt that the federal government and the Biden Administration are really listening to them about these concerns.” 

[Related: 'Leave us alone': ELD-exempt owner-ops say no to any potential pre-2000 exemption change]

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s potential revisions of ELD regulations, OOIDA contended, both seem to “expand the type of data that ELDs would be required to record and require data to be recorded at more frequent intervals. This would allow employers to collect even greater information about their employees” under the auspices of a government mandate. 

Techs' cost-benefit conundrum 

Among the owner-operators and small fleet owners that make up the core of Overdrive’s audience, though, it’s also true that no piece of technology that is truly being used is completely devoid of benefits, including ELDs. Following on Levy’s work on “Data Driven,” Overdrive surveyed readers about the various techs they use and what they’re giving up in costs and/or gaining in benefits. In the remainder of the features in this special report, find close examinations of a variety of technologies that have impacted business and experience over-the-road -- and not always solely at the hands of bureaucrats or technologists. 

Cost-benefit ratio measure for eight monitoring/location-tracking technologiesDownload full "State of Surveillance" survey results via this link. Shown is an overview of techs shaded green that readers who use them judged more beneficial than costly, with techs shaded red the opposite. Delivering the least benefit at the highest cost? In-cab cameras, whose evolution with AI-driven features shows camera vendors at least trying to address some of the costs, chiefly privacy-related for many drivers/owners.

Often, we choose technology, of course. Perhaps the most intrusive device is also one of truckers' most beloved: The smartphone. It delivers hours of entertainment and loads of business and other personal functionality, yet smartphone use brings us all squarely into the tech ecosystem that, in the wrong hands, might trap us.  

Karen Levy’s book highlights a tense exchange between a company and their driver, with dispatch personnel pestering him to get rolling while he attempts to sleep off/wait out a local storm. 

"If they didn’t know where we were, they wouldn’t be able to control the rates.”
--Owner-operator Debbie Desiderato on her view of one value brokers may get from location tracking, and why she mostly eschews the use of location services on her mobile  

“You have hours now and the ability to roll -- that is a failure when you are sitting and refusing to roll to the customer,” the firm messages the driver, who says he is trying to sleep. 

“Bad storm. Can’t roll now,” the driver shoots back. 

The dispatcher responds: “Weather Channel is showing small rain shower in your area, 1-2 inches of rain and 10 mph winds???”  

As with the old saw about the hours regs – the government presumes to know the driver’s body better than the driver himself – the dispatcher, aided and abetted by communications technology, presumes to know the view from the windshield and weather conditions better than the man in the cab. 

"That's Big Brother for you." --Small fleet owner John McGee, in the telematics-focused portion of this special report, explaining to one of his drivers how McGee knew the driver's truck threw a code before he did

Owner-operator Danny Derrick, too, like the vast majority of truckers uses a smartphone, and from time to time has let a broker or customer put an app on it to track his whereabouts and thus a load's progress to its destination. Yet in other ways he’s a low-tech trucker running ELD-exempt in a 1999 Western Star that’s totally paid off. He likely wouldn’t stand for this level of pestering from any broker or dispatcher, but for the trucker of tomorrow, who’s to say it doesn’t become the standard the way things are going? 

In the stories that follow, find close examination of what's become an increasingly complicated technology space and associated attitudes, pain points, recent-history developments and strategies owners use to tackle, mitigate or simply circumvent intrusions. Some forms of tech even the most independent truckers have wholeheartedly embraced, while others have become veritable emblems of overreach.

All the features in Trucking's State of Surveillance: 

Podcast -- Truckers 'canaries' in the tech mine: Inside story around 'Data Driven' book on ELD mandate, rise of 'new workplace surveillance'
Video monitoring, in two parts: 
**Can AI transform the prying eyes of in-cab cameras for the better?
**In-cab and out, camera options expand amid push-pull of privacy concern, regulatory attention
ELDs/smartphones and location tracking -- Broker intrusions on the rise with ubiquitous location tracking capability
Truck and trailer telematics -- Telematics beyond ELD systems: Promise, redundancy and real expense/uptime benefits 
Data mining -- The third parties following you around freight networks: Brokers looking more like carriers with 'data driven' decision-making
Smartphones/GPS -- Counterpoint to some truckers' tech reticence: 'If you use a smartphone, you embrace it' 
Roadside inspections -- 'Nothing to hide, nothing to fear,' right? Get ready for Level 8, automated inspections
Podcast -- FMCSA offering 'kinder, gentler' approach to safety scoring? Not if automated inspections go live