Chronicling the collision of trucking and automation: New photo exhibit by James Year

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Updated Apr 17, 2024

Will Cook at rest in-cabWill Cook waits for his hours of service to start at a rest area on I-70 west of St. Louis in May of 2022. Cook is also the founder of America Without Drivers. The grassroots organization is focused on the jobs and safety-related issues associated with driverless trucks.Unless otherwise noted, all photos and their captions by James Year

A photo exhibit chronicling working truckers in the face of unprecedented technological change is currently on display at the Newhouse School of Public Communications on the campus of Syracuse University in Syracuse, New York.

The exhibit, entitled “Stealing Fire: The Collision of Trucking and Automation,”  features the work of photographer James Christopher Year. Year was the 2023 professional recipient of Newhouse's prestigious Alexia Grant, which attracts hundreds of applicants from around the world. The grant, per its website, “exist[s] to help professional and student visual storytellers produce projects that inspire change and foster understanding by addressing significant topics.”

James YearJames YearThe grant enabled completion of the "Stealing Fire" project, parts of which Year was kind enough to share to illustrate this story.

Stealing Fire itself is a reference to Prometheus, who in Greek mythology was a Titan and self-serving trickster. Prometheus stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mankind.

Through his work as a photojournalist, James Year hopes to help the public see “trucking as an allegory for the automation of everything,” he said. “Proponents of AI make the argument that there hasn’t been a technological advance in the past 300 years that didn't improve the way we live. I’m not an AI doomsayer, but we’ve never automated human thought before. Nobody knows what outcomes this will create. I’m worried about the social upheaval this will cause in the next 10 to 20 years.”

For the expansive "Stealing Fire" project, he would travel 25,000 miles through 27 states all told, running with owner-operators and drivers of all stripes. He photographed various, often disparate parts of the trucking world. 

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In September last year, he was at the Teamsters' rallies in California, and on a convoy to Sacramento in support of bills (later vetoed by the state's governor) that would have required a trained human operator in any autonomous vehicle weighing more than 10,000 pounds. The following photo from one of those rallies appears in 'Stealing Fire."   

Teamsters California rally in favor of ban on driverless vehiclesTeamsters respond to California Professional Firefighters President Brian Rice’s question: “How many family members are you representing?” The "Good Jobs, Safe Streets" rally was the first showing of organized labor against the use of autonomous trucking.James Year

A six year veteran of the United States Air Force, James Year has long felt a kinship to trucking life, as it reminds him of his time in the service. “I was a Loadmaster on C-130s,” he said. Over the course of those 25,000 miles run for the project, he found the sense of kinship reinforced time and time again.  

“There's a lot of similarities between trucking, especially flatbedding, and Air Force life,” he said.  

Casey and Jimmy Simpson working on the turn signal in a 1983 Kenworth caboverCasey Simpson (right) and his father, Jimmy (center), fix a turn signal on a 1983 Kenworth cabover in their shop near Atlanta, Indiana. The Simpson family operate a small fleet of mostly pre-'99 trucks, which they repair, overhaul, upgrade, and restore themselves. Casey is the third-generation truck driver in the family.James Year

In the midst of all those miles, Year, a self-described farm boy from Northwest Iowa, had an epiphany.

“There was a fleet out of Indiana where I met a guy named Casey Simpson," he said. "He worked with his dad [Jimmy] at Simpson Trucking," a fleet of 14 older trucks. "They did things the old-school way. The amount of pride they had in their equipment, it felt like a military unit. I went with Casey [and some of the other guys] to Detroit to pick up circus equipment. It was like the Air Force," including all ribbing given and taken on the CB. "I thought, 'I could do this.’ The drivers made it home every night. Most nights, Jimmy and his wife Heather would be out there cooking for the drivers. It was like family.” 

The understanding Year hoped to foster while pursuing his Master’s degree on the G.I. Bill  was rooted in that kind of kinship.

“I wanted people to see this culture while it still remained," he said, in hopes more might "make smarter choices about the way the technology is implemented.”

A Waymo Via autonomous truck gets serviced by a safety driver at a QuikTrip truck stop just south of Dallas, Texas, on Sunday, June 26, 2022. Autonomous trucks are targeting long haul and line haul trucking markets. Estimates have stated that these machines will be able to lower current operating costs between 30 to 45 percent and more than double a truck’s utilization rate.A Waymo Via autonomous truck gets serviced by a safety driver at a QuikTrip truck stop just south of Dallas, Texas, on Sunday, June 26, 2022. Autonomous trucks are targeting long haul and line haul trucking markets. Estimates have stated that these machines will be able to lower current operating costs between 30 to 45 percent and more than double a truck’s utilization rate.James Year

With his old Iowa roots, Year comes from a long line of storm watchers. “My grandfather wrote an article in our local newspaper about the importance of always keeping an eye on the horizon,” he said.

While it's hard to argue against driving-automation technologies holding huge disruptive potential for trucking, the sad irony for Year, he points out, is that “AI’s technological impact on journalism risks reducing new job opportunities to mere vestigial remains. AI can’t touch photojournalism directly, at least right now. But editorial photography typically pays the least of any other type of photography. And AI is going to continually take more of the commercial and advertising work that freelancers need to survive.

“I spent my whole G.I. Bill on this degree. There’s no more left for college.” 

But the Iowa farm boy still has a few tricks up his sleeve: “I may just go drive a truck,” he said. 

Will Cook behind the wheelWill Cook heads westbound on a long haul out to Seattle, Washington.James Year

In the interest of full disclosure, one of Year’s subjects was a cantankerous character from Indiana who originally didn’t want his photo in this article, but later relented.

Paul Marhoefer leaving home, Denise Marhoefer and house in backgroundPaul Marhoefer says goodbye to his wife Denise for a long haul down to Florida in June of 2023. Marhoefer hauls refrigerated trailers for a family-owned company out of Ohio. The reefer market has been identified as a prime target for automation due to the predictable routes and faster delivery times. “Anytime I hear ‘supply chain solutions’ I know my paycheck is going to be cut,” said Paul.James Year

You can find the "Stealing Fire" photo exhibit at the Newhouse School of Public Communications, 215 University Place, in Newhouse 1 on the first floors between rooms 101 and 102 in Syracuse, New York.

To view more of James Year’s work, access the "Stealing Fire" project website via this link.

Thanks for reading. 

Access all in Long Haul Paul's "Faces of the Road" series of profiles and oral histories via this link. 

[Related: New group takes aim at 'trailerism' within trucking business and culture]