Truckers 'canaries' in the tech coal mine: Inside the 'Data Driven' book on ELD mandate, rise of 'new workplace surveillance'

user-gravatar Headshot
Updated Jul 27, 2023

Contemplating Karen Levy's new book, "Data Driven: Truckers, technology and the new workplace surveillance," one of my earliest recollections of childhood comes to mind.

We were on our way home from an Elvis movie at the Sky-Hi Drive-In on the outskirts of Muncie, Indiana. I was five or six. Somewhere on Wheeling Avenue we got a flat tire. Dad was away on business, and it was just Mom and us kids. My mother hailed from Hollywood, California. Her father was a cinematographer. When she fell in love with my dad, a Marine officer at the time, they married and in 1955 moved to Indiana. As an older gentleman once told me decades later, when my parents first moved to Muncie my mom looked just like Elizabeth Taylor. To boot, she was a high-toned woman with a lofty, dramatic air.

So there we were -- my mom, five kids, broke down and at wit's end about what to do.

A big semi pulled in behind us. A clean-cut man with a blue button-up shirt and gray slacks got out. 

"Don't worry, children, a truck driver is here!" Mom announced. "The truck driver is the Knight of the Highway." 

She could not have been more palpably relieved were he a priest on a mission to deliver us to paradise.

She got out, told us to stay put, and conferred with the driver. Soon the trunk popped open. There was a clanking of tools. In just a little while, we were rolling home.

"The truck driver is the Knight of the Highway," she repeated. "He's the King of the Road. If someone breaks down, he stops and helps them." She was repeating it now, like an incantation, a benediction. "The Knight of the Highway. King of the Road."

Dr. Karen Levy, a New America Fellow in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University, has spent the last 12 years researching, among other things, just what in the world happened to that guy.

Karen LevyKaren Levy, author of "Data Driven: Truckers, technology and the new workplace surveillance""Data Driven," available on audiobook via this link, explores not only the impacts of the ELD mandate on the lives of truckers, but the structural underpinnings of a long socioeconomic decline. Both an attorney and professor of sociology, Levy puts her main focus on how law and technology changes who we are. Truckers, the author maintains, have become the "canaries in the mineshaft," from weathering a 50% cut in real incomes since 1980s deregulation to, more recently, becoming the subjects of multi-level remote fleet management systems leaving less and less agency available to a breed of workers originally drawn to a vocation so they could simply be left alone.

In that regard, Levy remarked in today's edition of Overdrive Radio, "If you try to impose order on an industry or a group of people working together and you do that without on-the-ground knowledge of how people are getting things done, you're almost certain to miss the boat." She feels that, today, "that's what's happening in trucking. The entire ELD mandate and the framework from which it stems is kind of based on this idea that the problem in trucking is that people are breaking the rules, and not that the problem in trucking is that people are being incentivized to quite literally work themselves to death."

Overdrive Radio's sponsor is Howes, longtime provider of fuel treatments like its Howes Diesel Treat anti-gel and all-weather Diesel Defender, among other products.Overdrive Radio's sponsor is Howes, longtime provider of fuel treatments like its Howes Diesel Treat anti-gel and all-weather Diesel Defender, among other products.For Levy, truckers are not only the canaries in the mineshaft when it comes to remote workplace monitoring, but documented accounts of drivers' interactions with their new breed of keyboard-wielding superiors suggest that the wrong people may be in charge of the mine. 

As noted in the introduction to Overdrive's "State of Surveillance" special reports, released today, in "Data Driven" there's an archived conversation between a driver and dispatcher. The dispatcher is hectoring an ostensibly sleeping driver in intervals as tight as one minute via the company's fleet management system, wondering why he isn't getting back to work. Some of it's excerpted at this link, and to see the rest, I highly recommend you get the book.

"The type of knowledge that is valued by trucking companies, the ability to predict things," Levy said, is "kind of the management-consultant framework for finding inefficiency. It's very driven by the bottom line, and sometimes that happens to the exclusion of actually knowing how the industry functions."

Trucker, writer and podcast purveyor Gord Magill has a phrase for the phenomenon behind those hectoring dispatchers. "The answer for these companies" seems always to simply "'tech harder.' They don't want to put the money into actually paying for training, or making the driver's life better. So they just treat him like a robot."

Overdrive Radio logoSubscribe to the podcast on your listening platform of choice for early access to the weekly Overdrive Radio series -- it drops typically every Friday to the feed and follows here at OverdriveOnline.com and in Overdrive's Youtube and Facebook feeds the following week. You can subscribe via Apple and Google podcasts, Spotify, TuneIn, most anywhere you listen.Levy stressed "we haven't set up an infrastructure for people to get the rest they need. ... People aren't being paid for their labor. We detain them for hours on end unpaid. Any trucker will tell you what the problems are. But the people making decisions are solving problems based upon a false sense of how the industry actually functions."

I keep thinking of that nameless trucker in the blue shirt who nearly six decades ago stopped to help a mom with a car full of kids. He remains burnished in my memory as an almost mythical character, a god of sorts. I wonder whether he would have the same sense of freedom to perform that simple act of human kindness today? Would he fear incrimination from a manager scrutinizing him in real time through the cameras, the telematics systems, the ELDs? Would dispatch receive an alert that he was stopped on a city street and begin blowing up his phone? Would he be worried about messing up his clock or receiving a reprimand from safety?

Knight of the Highway. King of the Road. Maybe the canaries in the mineshaft have found a bit of a Mother Jones in Levy. Take a listen: 

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

Transcript

Todd Dills: Hey everybody, it's Todd Dills with Overdrive Radio, coming to subscribers Friday, July 7th. We've got a bit of a special preview for all of you here of a special report dropping this coming Monday, July 10 with this podcast. It's called “Trucking's State of Surveillance” and follows Overdrive's surveying of our owner-operator, small fleet and company driver readers about monitoring and or tracking capable technologies used in the business. We asked readers to assess the texts they use from smartphones and ELDs to truck and trailer telematics and various permutations of monitoring video cameras. We asked them to assess those texts and rate what's being given up in costs and or being gained in benefits. Reporting around those results yielded plenty in the way of just how working owner ops and other truckers view how those techs are changing the business and culture as monitoring goes well beyond just fleets today and down to other business to business relationships with brokers and other.

But all that reporting also follows attorney and academic Karen Levy's book, “Data Driven: Truckers, technology and the new workplace surveillance.” In which Levy tells the story of trucking during a time of transition before and after federally mandated electronic logging devices came into play in late 2017. The book leans heavily on in-depth work with working drivers and boatloads of other research besides, including leaning in part on Overdrive's own chronicling of the ELD transition over the last decade or more. Our own Long Haul Paul Marhoefer, early on in 2023, suggested interviewing Karen Levy. That was well before we began work on the special series of features you'll find Monday on the state of surveillance in the trucking business. Today on the podcast, the results of that interview that eventually happened, certainly integral to what's a big report and seven parts. Marhoefer and Levy here will take us back to the initial inspiration for the book with FMCSA first faints toward an e-log mandate more than a decade ago.

Karen Levy: That was true. That's a 12-year journey. It was a much bigger chunk of my life than I expected, but...

Todd Dills: The talk touches on added stress around hours accounting, added pressure on drivers of all stripes from supply chain parties and dovetails with Overdrive's reporting from late last year on crash statistics since the mandate too. On a fundamental level, Levy noted, truckers know the problems they face, detention and parking, how those are intertwined with making the hours of service regulations as onerous as they can be for many and that they're all fundamentally problems of economy. The finances of just compensation for the time put in, just compensation for all of that time. For all the ranker that the ELD mandated genders and all the technological intrusiveness that it's in some ways enabled ELDs can play a role in that just compensation fix. But as Levy has it, they’re certainly no panacea, much less any kind of magic safety tool.

Kare Levy: So if our thinking is that this is a safety technology, it's like failing on its own terms, that isn't to say that it can't have some positive impact or that it might not be part of a solution, but I think in my view what would make it with the solutions we actually need are economic are based on paying people for the work that they're doing. And in some ways, the ELD is a bit of a red herring because the real problem in my view is those pressures on drivers.

Todd Dills: On the other side of a break, we'll dive in with Long Haul Paul Marhoefer's conversation with Karen Levy, author of Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance. Keep tuned.

Speaker 3: Every diesel needs to defend against clogged injectors, low lubricity and slipping fuel economy. The best defense is the best defender Howes Diesel Defender with advanced IDX4 detergent get a deeper clean, maximum lubricity, and boosted fuel economy guaranteed. Howes Diesel Defender get optimal performance. Howes, for every diesel.

Todd Dills: Find more information about diesel defender at H-O-W-E-S howesproducts.com. Okay, to set this up, you just need to know one little piece of information though, Karen Levy is today's situated on the staff at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York she's originally from Indiana, just like our own Long Haul Paul Marhoefer. Here's Paul.

Long Haul Paul: The whole Indiana thing resonated with me because you're right there in the heart of farming country and Lafayette, but here you are, an attorney who devoted a significant portion of your professional life to studying the impact of electronic logs on trucking. I just have to know what makes a nice attorney from Indiana so interested in this.

Karen Levy: Yeah, I mean it was a little bit of an accident to be honest with you. A happy accident, an accident I'm glad I fell into, but like you said, I was working, so I got my law degree pretty quickly realized I didn't want to practice law that was like not... It's a noble profession in many ways, but it wasn't for me. But I was very interested in how law works and how it impacts people, less so in practicing. So I went and got my PhD in sociology and I really wanted to study the impact that technology was having on people's everyday lives and especially on how we think about rules and the rules we're all required to follow. And oftentimes we have rules that are on the books, like the hours of service are a prime example of course, but there are lots of other ones, where society wouldn't really function if everybody was following the rules and we kind of just pretend that those are the rules, but they're not.

So anyway, I wanted to study how technology was impacting that and I was kind of looking around for a site where I could study that transition and just by accident on the radio I heard a story about what was then called the EOBR mandate, the electronic onboard recorder mandate, now we call it the ELD mandate. This was in 2011 and I thought, well that's sounds like what I'm talking about. There are these hours of service rules that people who work as truckers have very little choice but to do their work as they need to. And sometimes that means that they can't follow these laws to the letter and that's just what the industry requires. But what's it going to look like if we start tracking everything people are doing? So I went to a truck stop, but that evening or the next day, I can't remember, just to see what is it like to talk to truckers.

I didn't have truckers in my family, I didn't know any truckers personally really. Now I do on my in-law's side, but at the time I didn't. And I found it great, I loved it. I loved talking to truckers. They had so many stories, they were so generous with their time. I asked so many stupid questions at first, but people were just incredibly kind and I loved the community and I loved learning about this profession of workers were very dependent on, but which a lot of people are very content never to think about. So I was just kind of hooked. And then I wrote my dissertation about the ELD mandate and then subsequently thought I would really like to tell this story more broadly. So I decided to write the book and that's a 12-year journey. It was a much bigger chunk of my life than I expected, but I'm very glad that it happened.

Paul Marhoefer: One of the things that amazed me in the book was just how transparent these truckers were with you. They were giving you some really deeply personal stuff and I think you alluded to this, the fact that you were this fresh-faced outsider who was genuinely inquisitive, seemed to work in your favor. Just out of curiosity, do you remember what truck stop you went to?

Karen Levy: That first truck stop was Jubitz, which is outside of Portland, Oregon.

Paul Marhoefer: Oh, you went to Jubitz. Oh yeah, that's a legendary, iconic place. Yeah. So you went to-

Karen Levy: Jubitz is the first one. And then I went to a bunch more just across the Midwest and then I was on the East Coast for a while. So I went to... I don't know, a couple dozen over the years, but Jubitz is where I got started.

Paul Marhoefer: Maybe the most... I don't know, poignant quote you got from a driver was the guy saying, "This is no effing party, we're not out here at a party, remember." And he really just laid it all out there to you and...

Karen Levy: Oh yeah, he set me straight for sure.

Paul Marhoefer: It's important for our listeners to know that most of your work was at the time the legislation went through but before the implementation, so you kind of caught the zeitgeist of the times and the angst of the time between 2011 and 2014, is that correct?

Karen Levy: Yeah, that's right. Yeah. That was kind of a strategic choice. I wanted to see... There's a lot you wouldn't learn if you looked only at the period after the mandate. So I mean it was a lucky that I was trying to write a dissertation before the mandate, but it was useful to see, okay, what does it look like when people are using paper logs and what does it look like when they're using e-logs? And so I tried to do both. I went to four different firms over the course of the research and two of them were using electronic logs and two of them were using E-logs.

And I talked to lots of truckers who were using both to try to get a sense for what the variations were and what people were concerned about coming down the pike. And then of course I talked to a lot more people after the mandate went through. But you're right, that was definitely this period of transition where people kind of saw this coming and it had been brought up several times before by the government and had been challenged legally and delayed in various ways. But I think everyone kind of knew this was likely to happen and by 2012, Obama had signed a bill saying like the FMCSA is going to have to do this, they had no choice of the matter anymore, really.

Todd Dills: Levy refers there to the MAP-21 highway bill that year, which directed establishment of what would become FMCSA's electronic logging device mandate and which would eventually be implemented beginning in late 2017.

Karen Levy: So yeah, it was a little bit preordained, but it was a good moment to kind of capture what these anxieties look like.

Paul Marhoefer: So after MAP-21 gets signed into law, then that's when it really becomes just a constant rolling matter of journalistic interest for Overdrive magazine. And we have a colleague of ours who wrote under the pseudonym West Memphis, chronicled his transition into electronic logs. But what I found interesting is I was reviewing West's work is that so many of the comments on these articles just resonated with what you found. I've spoken to drivers who have read your book and there's a certain deep respect that just regular working truck drivers have for what you've done.

Maybe it's because they felt seen and heard in that, but it's also in reading some of the articles about Data Driven, which I got on audiobook thankfully, and I metabolized the book in a very trucker like way. I listened to it over and over again, which speaking to someone who is an academic, I feel a little bit embarrassed to say that, but seems to me that you approached this with a lot more rhetorical modesty than some of the articles suggest. It seems to me the central thesis is that truckers are the canary in the mine shaft as it were, and this is an important way of looking at what remote work is going to become in a wider context. Was that part of what drove you to do this?

Karen Levy: Yeah, it's a good question. I certainly think I mean, not to say it was good timing, but as work has shifted and more people as you point out work remotely or digital technologies that supervise workers are cheaper and easier to come by across all different industries, certainly trucking, but lots of other industries too. I mean warehouse work and even things like finance and law, you just see a lot more of this kind of remote monitoring. So I think truckers are special, I mean obviously truckers are special in lots of ways. I think trucking as an industry has some unique aspects that make surveillance in this context especially interesting. But I think you're onto something when you say that this is also maybe an indicator of what's to come for other folks. So my hope is that the book is of interest to truckers or people who care about trucking but also speaks to these kind of broader dynamics around management and labor across lots of different industries.

I was just reading, there's this article that came out in the New York Times maybe a year ago. It's about productivity monitoring and they don't talk about trucking, but they talk about all these other professions and one of the people they talk to is a hospice chaplain, which you would think is maybe the least quantifiable work. The work of a hospice chaplain is so personal, it seems like hard to score that or assign a number to it in any kind of way. But they talk about how this hospice chaplain has to deal with this point system that her employer has instituted that tracks where she is and she gets a certain number of points for different lengths of visits and stuff.

And she just talking about how it's changed her work and how it flies in the face of what it is that she thinks she does all day, which is this very personal interaction with people who are about to leave this world. And I mean that's maybe an extreme example, but I do think it really hits home that this type of monitoring or trying to get a sense for what workers are doing maybe to the detriment of trusting them to do what's best is something that a lot of folks are beginning to encounter across different types of work.

Paul Marhoefer: You make this distinction between the original argument, well, why would you object to a device which electronically monitors your hours of service to what came with that, which was the fleet management systems. And in many cases, as in the weather, you constantly refer to this weather channel discussion between dispatch and an ostensibly sleeping driver. And could you talk about that exchange a little bit? Because I think so beautifully epitomizes how badly fleet management systems can go.

Karen Levy: So the exchange you're talking about, Paul, is this exchange that was in Landline magazine way back in December 2013 and they reprinted it because it's this pretty wild exchange between a driver and a dispatcher via a fleet management system where the dispatcher is at one minute increments, kind of harassing the driver to get back on the road and is saying, "You have hours, you're going to service fail this load." I can tell that, you got to go, you got to go, right? Really pushing him. And the driver says, "Well, I'm sleeping now, I can't drive and sleep at the same time." And then a couple hours pass and then the driver says, "There's a bad storm and I can't roll right now." And the dispatcher says, first, the dispatcher says, keep saying, "You have hours." Basically suggesting that the driver shouldn't be sleeping, shouldn't be tired, and that he knows that because he has back office access to his hours of service data.

And then he says, "The weather channel shows that there's only one or two inches of rain in your area. You saying that there's a bad storm that doesn't hold up either." And what is really interesting about this exchange, I mean one thing that's interesting about it is just that it happened. Folks who've been driving for a while know that the idea that your dispatcher can reach out to you at one minute increments while you're driving is not something that happened 20 years ago. But what's also really notable about it is the types of information the dispatcher thinks they have about how tired their driver is or what the local conditions are and how they're using that to challenge the driver's account, to challenge the driver saying, I'm sleeping now, or to challenge the driver saying the conditions aren't good for me to go.

And that's so different from what drivers are used to in the industry. So many drivers told me, "I'm the captain of my ship. The whole reason I got into tracking is because I wanted to be able to make decisions on my own. That's the way it's been for the decades or the millions of miles of safe driving I've been doing. I'm a professional, this is what I do." And you can just see how these new technologies fly in the face of that professionalism and trust when a dispatcher can say, I actually know better than you even though I'm hundreds of miles away. And of course the federal mandate, the ELD mandate doesn't require all of that stuff. It doesn't require the dispatcher to have a weather overlay of the map or to talk to drivers in a particular way, but it does facilitate that, right?

Because those technologies are built on top of the ELD and kind of comprise this fleet management system that is much more common now in trucks. So it just really changes a lot about how truckers are managed. On top of that, and this is something that there's been really good trucking trade press about, there's kind of this idea that these data that are gathered about truckers and their whereabouts also have value to a bunch of third parties. So insurance companies or companies that sell services like parking to truckers. So there's a lot of value for managers and for these third parties that come from ELDs, there's arguably less value for drivers. It's not obvious exactly how drivers benefit from having these in the truck.

Paul Marhoefer: It just speaks to the whole onset of aggregated information and predictive analytics. A few years out now from when a lot of the research on this book has been done, and so I try to approach the topic of ELDs with the same rhetorical modesty that you've approached this book and I made the transition. It was a difficult transition because it changed the entire culture around trucking. And I think what's interesting about that exchange is who that driver was interacting with was probably not the type of people that I've worked with, worked for. And what you had say in the nineties, the eighties was like the culture of the entrepreneur who built the company, so you've got these iconic photographs of J.B. Hunt in his cowboy hat and this story of JB Hunt coming from nothing with one truck and building this massive fleet.

And a lot of that was rooted in the character of the good old boy made good. And obviously J.B. Hunt wasn't on the other end of the phone line every time you called, but it was the culture of the entrepreneurial vision of America. And then I can remember Dave Nemo had Freymiller Trucking had a longstanding account with the road gang when Dave Nemo was an all night DJ. And he would say, "And Don Freymiller is out in his truck right now, trucking." Work for the trucker. So there was this sense of comradery and you probably know this by now Karen, but in Indiana there were a lot of farmers with small fleets of 20, 30 trucks because these were complimentary skill sets. They already had the shop, they already had the tools, so why not get into a little trucking, haul a little grain?

And these were all just good old boys who were breaking the same rules that you were breaking when they were out in the trucks. And you speak to that early in the book when you speak to how there was a certain comradery and a certain persuasive sense of solidarity with labor that used to exist, that early ethnographers identified in the incident of the people being allowed to smoke in the mines and stuff like that. And ELDs sort of take that all away and now you're being run by a technocrat in an office who probably knows how to run a computer but doesn't know what a fifth wheel is. And so the culture of trucking has necessitated, ELDs has necessitated this great changing of the guard.

Karen Levy: Yeah, I really think there's something to that. I mean the type of knowledge I think that's valued in a trucking firm, and this is maybe true just across managerial class generally in other industries too, but certainly in trucking is as you said, data analysis... The ability to predict things, kind of like the management consultant framework for finding inefficiency almost regardless of what the industry is or what the work in that industry looks like, it's a very driven by the bottom line and sometimes that happens to the exclusion of actually knowing how the industry functions or how people do their work.

So it tends to be a little more based on these kind of principles of expertise that are divorced from the actual labor that people do. I agree with that. And one thing that I think we see happening, and this is something I talk about in the book is like too, if you try to impose order on an industry or a group of people working together and you do that without on the ground knowledge of how it is that people are getting things done, you do it based on this abstract notion of what work looks like or how it is that people are interacting, you're almost certain to miss the boat.

You're going to solve the wrong problem or you're going to solve the problem for the people with the most money or the most power, but in a way that maybe is to the detriment of the people who are actually out there taking risk and doing work. And I think that's what's happened in trucking and I think the entire ELD mandate and the framework from which it stems is based on this idea that the problem in trucking is that people are breaking the rules. And not that the problem in trucking is that people are incentivized to drive themselves sometimes quite literally to death or that the problem is that we haven't set up an infrastructure for people to get the rest they need or that people aren't paid for their labor or that we detain them for hours on end unpaid.

I mean those are the problems. If one thing that was really striking to me when I talked to truckers is that they of course know what the real problems in the industry are. Any trucker will tell you what the problems in the industry are sometimes at length and with colorful language, but the people making decisions or deciding how it is we're going to address problems are sometimes solving the wrong problems. They're solving problems based on this kind of false sense of how the industry actually functions or why people are breaking the rules. They don't get to the root cause of hours of service violations, they just stop with, well, this is the rule and we need people to follow it more closely. So anyway, I take that point that you raised about the ways in which kind of the people who are in power or doing management or making decisions are maybe less informed by what the work actually looks like.

Todd Dills: Paul here raised a reference in Data Driven to the historian Alan Derickson's book about what he calls the, "Cult of manly wakefulness in America. The old sleep is for sissy saw and the very real first responder type instinct that can set in all of us to get the job done in a crisis." A crisis like Marhoefer noted 12 hours worth of unexpected attention and drive to make up that time part of what contributed to tragedy for Paul is he shared with Levy here too, when he wrecked his Western star, well more than a decade ago now. It's a story he told in our Over The Road podcast series, find it back in the Overdrive Radio podcast feed wherever you're listening, re-aired here beginning in late 2020.

Karen Levy: There's quantitative studies that talk about the relationship between detention time and safety or the wage structure in trucking and safety outcomes. So we have statistics, but I think what we need are statistics and stories, and that's a lot of why I decided to study this topic in the way I did, where I could try to hear the stories of folks who are actually doing the work and are putting themselves at risk and sometimes have suffered really awful consequences as a result of the political economy of the industry or the way it's arranged. And to your point, Paul, about manly wakefulness, this idea that people feel the need to... I think the way Derickson puts it is to stay in the saddle and stamina becomes really central because people have to do... They have no choice but to do that. Even if to your point about what your doctor was telling you, even if you know shouldn't, right?

Or that it's not the safest thing to do. When you're faced with financial incentives, drivers are faced with, it's not surprising that people sometimes act against their own interests because you have to weigh risk versus the short-term need to keep the lights on at home. You raised earlier this quote from a driver that I reproduced at some length in the book about how it isn't an effing party, and I thought that that driver was one of the best people I talked to. And he really made clear for me that we can talk cowboys and we can talk about the culture of trucking and it sounds like it's fun. And I admit the reason he said these things to me was because I was like, truckers are fun people to talk to and there's a lot of storytelling and it can be an interesting fun culture to get into, but he really set me straight right by saying, you know what?

This is a gloss on an economic need. I have to drive when I'm tired. I have no choice. I can't feed my family if I don't do it. And so if I act like stamina is fun or if I challenge myself to stay in the saddle, that's a necessity for me. I'm not doing that because it's fun to put myself at risk because this is what's required of me, this is what the industry requires of me. So it's important I think, to keep those things in one's mind at once. That was something I really learned from getting to talk to people that I certainly wouldn't have learned if I was just analyzing the crash data in my office. And that's why one reason I'm just deeply, deeply grateful to the trucking community for sharing those stories with me, it's just been an unbelievably humbling experience to get to know drivers and to hear about the pressures that they face on the road.

Paul Marhoefer: I love this quote that you have from Anne Balay, the oral historian who wrote Semi Queer and she describes truckers are trucking years of experience mixed with sheer desperation, and that's leading up to e-logs. Maybe that was what the cultural gloss was covering of the outlaw, the cowboy, and you still see that. It's a funny thing. Trucking has almost become this two parallel industries. There are still people who have been able to retain those trappings and there are some very aesthetically beautiful trucks out there. And then there's the rest of us or company guys who wound up having to just go along with what the government mandated and a lot of us are in slow trucks with...

I'm in a slow plain chain blue freight liner. I don't know if the desperation has completely left, but I will say this, and I'm rambling a bit, but I hope you... We're both from Indiana so we can roll with this. When you talk to the work to rule how ELDs created this work to rule labor action, I wonder if some positives did not evolve from that. Because as a company driver, I think I've had seven raises since electronic logs came out. I see it as sort of a mixed bag.

Karen Levy: Yeah. Maybe this is surprising to some people, but in the end of the book, I actually don't come down on the side of what we should do is just throw out all the e-logs. I'm not confident that that's a good thing. I think there are some benefits potentially to them as you point out. When they're operated with an eye towards driver's interests, it sounds like, I mean I don't know who you're working for, but it sounds like if they're giving you repeated raises, they recognize your value in a way that I think a lot of trucking firms tend not to. I think the sense I've gotten from talking to some other drivers is that there's sort of... And this is actually something Gord McGill said to me the other day, that there's some desire maybe among some firms to kind of look for lowest common denominator ability because the management software allows people to... It discounts the traditional expertise that some drivers might have, and it sounds like that's not something that's happening in your situation, which is certainly a good thing.

I think ultimately at the end of the day, after thinking about the ELD for a long time, my take is not that there is no role for electronic logging in trucking. I think there may well be a role for it. What I do think it tells us though is that the ELD is not effectively... It's not solving the safety problem. The quantitative data that we have demonstrate that if anything crashes and fatalities have gone up since the mandate in some part, at least because speeding has gone up since the mandate. Because people feel more of a squeeze to get from A to B in 11 hours than they did before. So if our thinking is that this is a safety technology, it's failing on its own terms, that isn't to say that it can't have some positive impact or that it might not be part of a solution, but I think in my view, the solutions we actually need are economic are based on paying people for the work that they're doing.

And it's great that to your point, that some truckers are seeing six figure salaries or six figure wages at this point. By and large trucker wages have been really stagnant over the last 15 years and they're about half of what they were in 1980. So we have a long way to go, but I would love to see that. I certainly think that some of the work that policymakers are just beginning to do to think about the FMCA exemption... Sorry, the fair labor, the FLSA exemption, the Fair Labor Standards Act exemption that keeps truckers from getting overtime. It's good to see that folks in Washington are beginning to think about that, are beginning to think about the relationship between detention time and safety outcomes. In some ways the ELD is a bit of a red herring because the real problem in my view is those pressures on drivers.

Paul Marhoefer: I think Michael Belzer was the first one that pointed out when deregulation occurred and then almost this re-regulation of the individual took its place. He talks about the new regulatory imperative, and as I read those comments in Overdrive, it seemed like so many of those commentators were spot on, and I thought everything they're saying is right. But it doesn't seem... It will never have any collective heft, if you will, because it's maybe the after effect of deregulation and the breaking of unions. It's very difficult for people to throw this off collectively, it would seem to be. And to your point, I don't find myself as an apologist of electronic logging, but on the other hand, I don't know, I don't it as all bad and I don't see it as all good, if that makes any sense.

Karen Levy: Yeah. No, I think that make a lot of sense. And to the extent that I talk about this in the book too, there are some kind of silver linings potentially if one of the things we want to do is be able to quantify detention time, for example, because policymakers tend to speak in the language of money and numbers. This is certainly not enough on its own own, but if ELDs help us quantify how much of trucker's time is lost to detention, that's not a bad thing. There are some good things from getting that visibility into what people are dealing with, and I have certainly talked to companies and to drivers at companies that have implemented ELDs in ways that are pretty sensitive to drivers, and a lot of it I think is people who tend to have a longer term view and value retention of really well qualified drivers over just churning people out.

I think people who really want to keep a strong workforce have a tendency to think differently about how they're going to use technologies like this, and maybe they don't collect all the data that the fleet management system enables, or they think about how to actually provide for their workers' needs and don't just expect them to bear all the risk with no support, and the ELD can be part of that process. There's some really good... It's not studies I've done, but some studies I cite in the book some really good comparative studies about companies that have rolled out ELDs kind of in different ways. These are experiments where they talk to different firms and have them roll them out with different kind of programs that focus on culture and wages and things like that. And you can see that the ELD is not one thing.

It can be used in lots of different ways, and so maybe it can be part of a solution, but I think it can't solve problems on its own. And sometimes some companies use it in ways that certainly exacerbate problems and place truckers under even more pressure than they were facing before. I'm not sure how much there is in this book that truckers don't know. I think truckers know what the problems are in their industry and they know the challenges that they face in doing the work that they do, but to have gotten to know folks in this industry and to continue to be so welcomed by the folks who are doing this work, who certainly have better things to do with their time than answer my dumb questions about the ELD mandate, it's just been an incredible honor and there's nothing I can say to communicate my gratitude, except that I really hope that the book does justice to the stories that people have told me.

Todd Dills: Again, that's Data Driven: Truckers, Technology and the New Workplace Surveillance by Karen Levy. Find more about the book from Marhoefer in the post that will house this podcast for Monday, July 10th, 2023, where you'll also find links to Overdrive's state of surveillance special report as noted at the top. Find a direct link to the main story in the show notes too. Those listening on the feed, the link will be live Monday, wherever you're listening. Overdrive Radio is available via Google and Apple Podcast, Spotify, TuneIn, SoundCloud, overcast.fm, and so many other podcasts services. Subscribe to access these episodes early, and if you haven't, leave Overdrive Radio a rating or review wherever you're listing. No doubt it helps other interested owners find the show.