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End of the road: will automation put an end to the American trucker?

Americas 2 million truckers have long been mythologised in popular culture. But self-driving trucks are set to lay waste to one of the country’s most beloved jobs and the fallout could be huge.

 

Jeff Baxters sunflower-yellow Kenworth truck shines as bright and almost as big as the sun. Four men clean the glistening cab in the hangar-like truck wash at Iowa 80, the worlds largest truck stop.

Baxter has made a pitstop at Iowa 80 before picking up a 116ft-long wind turbine blade that hes driving down to Texas, 900 miles away.

Baxter, 48, is one of the 1.8 million Americans, mainly men, who drive heavy trucks for a living, the single most common job in many US states. Driving is one of the biggest occupations in the world. Another 1.7 million people drive taxis, buses and delivery vehicles in the US alone. But for how long? Having disrupted industries including manufacturing, music, journalism and retail, Silicon Valley has its eyes on trucking.

Google, Uber, Tesla and the major truck manufacturers are looking to a future in which people like Baxter will be replaced or at the very least downgraded to co-pilots by automated vehicles that will save billions but will cost millions of jobs. It will be one of the biggest changes to the jobs market since the invention of the automated loom challenging the livelihoods of millions across the world.

“I’m scared to death of that,” says Baxter, an impish man with bad teeth that he hides behind his hand as he laughs. “I can’t operate a pocket calculator!”

But Baxter is in the minority. Iowa 80 is a great place to check the pulse of the trucking community. Interstate 80 the second longest in the country runs from downtown San Francisco to the edge of New York City. The truck stop, about 40 miles east of Iowa City, serves 5,000 customers each day, offering everything they could need from shops and restaurants to a cinema, chiropractor, dentist, barber and a chapel.

Every week, a major tech company seems to announce some new development in automated trucking. Next month, the Tesla founder, Elon Musk, will unveil an electric-powered semi that is likely to be semi-autonomous. But most of the truckers I spoke to were not concerned by the rise of the robots. “I don’t think a robot could do my job,” says Ray Rodriguez, 38, who has driven up a batch of cars from Tennessee. “Twenty years from now, maybe.”

Nor do the managers of the Iowa 80 see their jobs changing any time soon. The infrastructure just isnt there, says Heather DeBaillie, marketing manager of Iowa 80. Nor does she think that people are ready for autonomous trucks. Think about the airplane. They could automate an airplane now. So why dont they have airplanes without pilots? She also argues that the politics of laying off so many people will not pass muster in Washington.

The family-run Iowa 80 has been serving truckers for 53 years, and is so confident about its future that it is expanding to secure its claim to being the worlds biggest truck stop, adding more restaurants and shopping space to the Disneyland of truckers.

But not everyone is so confident that truck stops will survive the age of the algorithm. Finn Murphy, author of The Long Haul, the story of his life as a long-distance truck driver, says the days of the truck driver as we know him are coming to an end. Trucking is a $700bn industry, in which a third of costs go to compensating drivers, and, he says, if the tech firms can grab a slice of that, they will.

Left to right: Iowa 80, known as the Disneyland of truck stops; Jeff Baxter, 49, with his truck after having it washed; Douglas Berry, 55, with his truck and trailer. Composite: John Richard for the Guardian

The only human beings left in the modern supply chain are truck drivers. If you go to a modern warehouse now, say Amazon or Walmart, the trucks are unloaded by machines, the trucks are loaded by machines, they are put into the warehouse by machines. Then there is a guy, probably making $10 an hour, with a load of screens watching these machines. Then what you have is a truckers lounge with 20 or 30 guys standing around getting paid. And that drives the supply chain people nuts, he says.

The goal, he believes, is to get rid of the drivers and have ultimate efficiency.

I think this is imminent. Five years or so. This is a space race the race to get the first driverless vehicle that is viable, says Murphy. My fellow drivers dont appear to be particularly concerned about this. They think its way off into the future. All the people I have talked to on this book tour, nobody thinks this is imminent except for me. Me and Elon Musk, I guess.

The future is coming. Arguably it is already here. Several states have already laid the groundwork for a future with fewer truckers. California, Florida, Michigan and Utah have passed laws allowing trucks to drive autonomously in platoons, where two or more big rigs drive together and synchronize their movements.

The stage has been set for a battle between the forces of labor and the tech titans. In July, the powerful Teamsters union successfully pushed Congress to slow legislation for states looking to broaden the use of autonomous vehicles. After arm-twisting by the union, the US House of Representatives energy and commerce committee exempted vehicles over 10,000lb from new rules meant to speed the development of autonomous cars. Many truckers came into the industry after being displaced by automation in other industries, and the transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, has said she is very concerned about the impact of self-driving cars on US jobs.

The Budweiser cans driven by self-driving truck.

But Ryan Petersen sees the Teamsters move as a speed bump at best. Petersen, the founder of Flexport, a tech-savvy freight logistics company, says fully operational self-driving trucks will start replacing jobs within the next year, and will probably become commonplace within 10.

Labor accounts for 75% of the cost of transporting shipments by truck, so adopters can begin to realize those savings. Beyond that, while truckers are prohibited from driving more than 11 hours per day without taking an eight-hour break, a driverless truck can drive for the entire day. This effectively doubles the output of the trucking network at a quarter of the cost. Thats an eight-times increase in productivity, without taking into account other benefits gained by automation, he says.

Larger trucks making highway trips, like those occupying the 900-truck parking spots at Iowa 90, are the lowest-hanging fruit and will be automated first, Petersen says.

Last year, Otto, a self-driving truck company owned by Uber, successfully delivered 45,000 cans of Budweiser in a truck that drove the 130-odd miles from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Colorado Springs. A semi-automated platoon of trucks crossed Europe last year in an experiment coordinated by DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN, Scania and Volvo.

But the automation that seems to most concern drivers at Iowa 80 concerns their log books. Truck firms are shifting drivers over to computerized logs and they hate it. The new system adds another layer of oversight to an industry that is already heavily regulated, and will limit where and when drivers can stop. A driver looking to add an extra 30 minutes to his ride in order to make it to the truck stop rather than rest up in a layby might find that option gone, under a system that is centrally controlled rather than filled in by him in the log books that occupy a long shelf in Iowa 80s giant trucker store.

The trucker holds a special place in American mythology: sometimes a symbol of freedom and the open road, sometimes a threat. Truckers entered popular culture from all directions, from the existential horror of Spielbergs Duel, to Convoy, the bizarre trucker protest song that became a global hit and introduced the world to CB radio slang Let them truckers roll, 10-4!

Left to right: Ray Rodriguez puts wheel-bolt covers on his truck; promotional material for Smokey and the Bandit; the Iowa 80 Trucking Museum. Composite: John Richard/The Guardian/Universal Pictures

In the 1970s, Hollywoods he-men wanted to be truckers: Kris Kristofferson in Convoy, inspired by the song; Burt Reynolds CB-slanging his way through Smokey and the Bandit I and II. Thelma and Louise took their revenge on a cat-calling trucker in 1991. Hollywood, presciently, had a cyborg drive a big rig in Terminator 2, and went full robot with Optimus Prime in the Transformers franchise. At the turn of the 21st century, the ever nostalgic hipsters love of trucker hats and T-shirts revived Americas fetishization of the long-distance driver.

But its a nostalgia out of sync with a reality of declining wages, thanks in part to declining union powers, restricted freedoms, and a job under mortal threat from technology, says Murphy. Truckers made an average of $38,618 a year in 1980. If wages had just kept pace with inflation, that would be over $114,722 today but last year the average wage was $41,340.

The myth is that the long-haul truck driver is the cultural evolution of the free-range cowboy from the 19th century, says Murphy. In fact, trucking is one of the most regulated industries in the United States. Every move the trucker makes is tracked by a computer. We have logs we need to keep every time we stop, pull over, take a leak. The trucks speed, braking, acceleration is all recorded. This is not a cowboy on the open range. This is more like 1984 than 1894.

Douglas Barry has been driving trucks since 1990. A wiry firecracker of a man, Barry says those pushing for automation are failing to see the bigger picture. The general public is just not ready to see 80,000lb of 18-wheeler flying down the highway with no one at the wheel.

“That big old rig could blow sky-high, slam into a school. It needs a human being. There isn’t a machine that can equal a human being,” he says. “Artificial intelligence can be hacked … Who is ready for that? I wouldn’t want my family going down the road next to a truck that’s computer-operated.”

He says the involvement of the tech companies has stopped people from looking for more holistic solutions to transportation problems. The answer is better roads, more delivery points for trains, streamlining the supply system not just looking for ways of cutting manpower.

A lot of these people at Google and so forth are very intelligent. But in a lot of ways they are out of touch with reality, Barry says.

Yet computers don’t get tired, don’t drink or take drugs, and dont get distracted or get road rage. Murphy, the author, says the argument that people are better than machines will not hold for long especially as more and more people get used to autonomous cars.

“The assumption is that we are living in some kind of driver utopia now and machines are going to destroy that,” he says. “The fact is that we have 41,000 highway deaths in America every year. If we piled those bodies up, that would be a public health crisis. But we are so used to the 41,000 deaths that we dont even think about it.”

“Virtually all those deaths are from driver error,” he says. “What if we took that number down to 200? Here’s how it looks to me. Thirty years from now my grandchildren are going to say to me: You people had pedals on machines that you slowed down and sped up with? You had a wheel to turn it? And everybody had their own? And you were killing 41,000 people a year? You people were savages!

“They are going to look at driver-operated vehicles the way people now look at a pregnant woman smoking,” he says. “It’ll be the absolute epitome of barbarism.”

It will also be a change in the workplace of historic proportions. “I watch a lot of Star Trek,” says Baxter, as he prepares to get back on the road. “The inventions of an innovative mind can accomplish a lot of things. I just dont want to see automated trucks coming down the road in my lifetime.”

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/10/american-trucker-automation-jobs

Fury at ‘Bodega’ tech startup that aims to put corner shops out of business

Bodega, which markets glorified vending machines where users can buy groceries, boasts: “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary.”

Bodega co-founders

 

A tech startup called Bodega that hopes to replace mom-and-pop shops with unmanned boxes that rely on an app and artificial intelligence is facing a massive backlash from immigrant business owners and skeptics across Silicon Valley.

The company, founded by two former Google employees and launched on Wednesday, is marketing five-foot-wide pantries that users can unlock with their smartphones to pick up non-perishable items. There are no humans at the stores which are already stationed in spots like apartment buildings, offices and gyms and a computer program automatically charges customers credit cards, according to Fast Company, which first reported on the startup.

Although the boxes appear to be little more than glorified vending machines, the company’s executives have been widely mocked, and criticized for explicitly stating that their mission is to displace neighborhood corner stores and put family-owned shops out of business.

“The vision here is much bigger than the box itself,” co-founder Paul McDonald, a former Google product manager, told Fast Company. “Eventually, centralized shopping locations won’t be necessary, because there will be 100,000 Bodegas spread out, with one always 100 ft away from you.”

McDonald backtracked on Wednesday, claiming in a blogpost that he is not trying to put bodegas out of business despite his earlier statements to the contrary: “Challenging the urban corner store is not and has never been our goal.”

The goal of disrupting a long-running industry and eliminating human interaction from the process of shopping at a convenience store is embedded in the roundly ridiculed Bodega name, which appropriates a commonly used term in the US for corner stores typically run by immigrants.

“It’s sacrilegious to use that name, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do to fight this,” Frank Garcia, chair of the New York State Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, told the Guardian. “It was devastating to find out and it’s not fair to the local bodegas now that don’t have the angel investors that these guys have.”

McDonald and co-founder Ashwath Rajan have secured funding from high-profile players in the tech industry, including investors from First Round Capital, Forerunner Ventures and Homebrew and senior executives at Facebook, Google, Twitter and Dropbox, Fast Company reported.

Garcia said his grandfather was the head of the Latin Grocery Association in the 1960s and helped coin the term bodega, a name widely used for stores in New York City today.

“It’s his legacy and the legacy of these immigrants who came here with nothing to start a little grocery store, and came up with a concept to really help the community against racism,” he said, noting that existing grocers often would refuse to serve Puerto Ricans. “Don’t use our community to make a fast buck.”

McDonald claimed that the company conducted surveys in the Latin American community to understand if they felt the name was a misappropriation of that term or had negative connotations and alleged that 97% said no.

Bodega co-founders
The founders of Bodega hope there will eventually be thousands of boxes with one always 100 ft away from you. Photograph: Ellian Raffoul for Moanalani Jeffrey Photography

Bodega did not respond to an interview request and did not answer questions about the nature of the survey and how much funding the startup has raised.

In his blogpost, McDonald praised existing bodegas as fixtures of their neighborhoods for generations that stock thousands of items, far more than we could ever fit on a few shelves. He also said he was surprised by the social media outrage about the name, offering an apology to “anyone we’ve offended.”

“Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores or worse yet, a threat we intended only admiration.”

He did not respond to a question about whether he was reconsidering the name.

Critics have also condemned Bodega as the latest example of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs attracting large sums of money to provide a service for which there is little demand, aimed at catering to a wealthy population. Juicero, a startup that raised $120m to sell $400 juicer machines that were revealed to be the equivalent of two hands squeezing a juice box, recently shut down.

McDonald told Fast Company he was unveiling 50 new locations on the west coast and plans to spread across the country, with more than a thousand Bodegas in place by the end of 2018. The boxes are supposed to use machine learning to assess which items are most in demand and adjust the supply accordingly, but some critics are already questioning whether the business model will be sustainable.

“Even if Bodega rapidly grows, many shoppers won’t want to abandon their local stores,” said Trisha Chakrabarti, senior program and policy manager at Mandela MarketPlace, a nonprofit that supports local grocery stores and is based in Oakland, California, where Bodega is headquartered.

“It’s about having neighbours in your community who know you, who have lived there and been in business for a long time, who have seen changes in the neighborhood and are responsive to customers needs,” she said. “That kind of personalization of service, you will never be able to find with an automated service.”

“Bodega is launching at a time when local bodegas are barely scraping by,” said Chakrabarti. These are marginalized business owners to begin with in places like Oakland, New York and San Francisco. Their businesses are threatened by ever increasing rents.

She said she was particularly shocked to see the startup founders openly boasting about striving to wipe out this industry: “I hope that they fail.”

“In New York, where there are a large number of Yemeni-owned corner stores, some are known for using honour systems in which they let regular customers pay at a later date if they are low on cash and have immediate needs,” said Debbie Almontaser, board president of the Muslim Community Network.

“They work with communities when they don’t have money, people living paycheck to paycheck that need milk and diapers,” she said. “All of their customers are just so grateful that they have this kind of trust in them … I can’t imagine they would want to see these manufactured little kiosks in their communities.”

Garcia said his organization would explore any legal options it may have to challenge Bodega’s name, adding that he hoped lawmakers would regulate this kind of business and not let the startup bypass government rules existing stores have to follow.

He noted that even when 7-Eleven, the chain of convenience stores, has moved into neighborhoods with small businesses, executives have met with community leaders and representatives of bodegas.

“At least they respected the community,” he said. “These guys have not.”

At one residential skyscraper in San Francisco where a Bodega box is, tenant Nripesh Koirala said he would consider shopping from one since it’s convenient, but that he didn’t think the startup would threaten retail shops.

“It’s just their arrogance if they’re saying they are going to replace stores,” said Koirala, a 23-year-old student. “At a corner store, there are a lot of things you can choose from and you can ask them questions … You can’t talk to a vending machine.”

Contact the author: sam.levin@theguardian.com

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/sep/13/tech-startup-bodega-corner-stores

‘The US hasn’t been this divided since the 60s’: Slipknot’s Corey Taylor on how to save America

For his new book, America 51, the Slipknot frontman has been examining the sicknesses at the heart of US culture and from Donald Trump to modern dating; here’s his exclusive guide to navigating them.

Corey Taylor

 

Don’t fear Donald Trump

He is so ineffectual. Everyone was worried about the crazy things he’d do, but there’s nothing that he’s done that can’t be changed in another administration, like the Paris agreement. There’s no need to panic. Too many I don’t want to say liberal lambasts are hitting the panic button too quickly, instead of bringing up issues and talking about them. For me it’s really a case of: what’s going on with the senators, what’s going on on a local level?

Sure, Trump is the firebrand, and everyone wants to talk about the return of Nuremburg after that Boy Scout rally, but whatever. People forget: he hasn’t done shit. He really hasn’t. Even with his party in control of both houses, nothing has happened. He hasn’t fulfilled one promise.

So what am I scared of? I think people need to calm down, and keep fighting the illogical with logic. He won by the smallest of margins. And honestly, he only got in on a technicality. It’s shit like that you have to keep reminding yourself of, because they will try and paint a completely different picture. Rhetoric is swirling around. If only there was an interconnected device to look back in time to see what the truth and the reality was! I say that with all the sarcasm in the world.

Donald Trump

He hasn’t fulfilled one promise… Donald Trump. Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Toxic masculinity has been in America forever

It’s only because of this presidency that we are getting a really good taste of it. In a misogynistic culture, there’s this misconception that doing good things for people, and trying to take care of them, is a pussy move. The result is a bunch of people pumping their chests up, and talking shit on women, talking shit on gay people, talking shit about everyone. They feel threatened; their way of life feels threatened.

A lot of it has to do with the fact that the liberal and LGBT community is coming at them fast and loose with concepts they are not used to; they’re not part of their culture, and yet they are being forced to accept them. There’s liberal fascism in response to the conservative fascism, and it’s keeping good people in the middle scratching their heads and thinking: “I don’t know what to believe.” And part of that reaction is this pumped-up masculine middle finger going: You don’t tell me how to live my life. It’s their mind balking at the fact that they may have to accept something when they haven’t had the chance to understand what it is.

For so many years they have been in control of what is culturally accepted, and the whole LGBT community is trying to override that, because they’re tired of being marginalised, they’re tired of being treated like a perversion. It’s very much a war. I lived through the Reagan years and I grew up during the gas shortage, I grew up seeing some serious shit go down. But I dont think the country has been this divided since the 1960s.

Kid Rock

I’m about as qualified for senate as he is, i.e. not at all … Kid Rock. Photograph: Getty

Celebrities: stop running for senate

Kid Rock is for running for senate, and I’m about as qualified as he is, i.e. not at all. It’s the same as the Rock; I love the idea of him saying he wants to run for president but they’re just another pair of voices saying that they can get it done, and look where that’s got us.

There are still so many cabinet positions that have not been filled in this administration, because Trump is completely overwhelmed. And that’s a guy who reportedly knows how to run a business. So what the hell is Kid Rock going to do? It’s the biggest form of ego I have ever heard in my life. Please go ahead. Drive a car with a blindfold on and see how far it gets you.

Modern dating is gross

It brings out this crazy psychosis in all of us. At least on a blind date you have to kind of be yourself; they’re going to see the sweat, and see you’re struggling. But dating sites and apps put you at ease, and so all the little gnarly quirks and perversions come out. Hey, if it brings freaks together, who am I to judge? I think everyone has someone out there, and I would like to see people get together. But are you really trying to meet the love of your life on Grindr?

Romance isn’t dead, though. As long as there are hopeless romantics like myself, I don’t think it will die. We will just see an evolution of what romance means. There are still people who love selfless acts. And if its something as weird as a very heartfelt post on Twitter, to some people that’s huge. To some people that’s the ultimate act of romance.

Corey Taylor

I’m the worst hypocrite… Corey Taylor in his civvies.

We’re addicted to our phones

I’m the worst hypocrite because I bitch about it, but Im just as bad as everyone else. I wander around with this tiny little tablet in my hand, and I look up and see that someone has asked me a question. It’s so embarrassing. These devices are bringing out all the dopamine that I had wasted for years on smoking and drinking and drugs, and I’m waiting for what the hangover is going to feel like. I don’t know what the repercussions are going to be, but maybe we’re starting to see the end of face-to-face relationships, and more and more people being comfortable with long distance relationships. Why do I need to touch anyone? All I need is my phone and this contact and that’s all I need.

Don’t worry about the environment

My contribution to being eco-friendly is quitting smoking. I recycle. I do this and that. But all you can really worry about is your own side of things. If you start to think about it on a huge scale then you get overwhelmed. At the same time, I’d like to think we’re trying to do the right thing and we are trying to get this planet on the right track; not because of the planet, but because of us. George Carlin nailed this 25 years ago. He said: the planet is fine, the people are fucked!

The planet is going to be here long after we are gone. Don’t try and bullshit me that we are saving the planet we are saving ourselves. We put so much emphasis on the planet and not on the people, because we feel it’s more selfless, but if people were more honest maybe we would get more done with climate change. I’m not trying to save shit. I don’t give a fuck about the planet; I just want to keep my kids alive.

The music industry is like the wild west

The industry is trying to make peace with streaming; they’re finding out how to monetise it, but they’re still screwing over the artists. It’s sad because I’m seeing a lot of bands get out because they can’t make a living. How are you supposed to make a living when it’s completely taken out of your hands?

I’m in a unique situation because I’m in the old system, but I’m actually able to make a pretty decent living with the new system. I find it hard to bite the hand that feeds me. But at the same time I see all these other bands who can’t get a break. I don’t know what the answer is to be honest. I’m stoked for people like Ed Sheeran; that kid worked his ass off, so why shouldn’t he get the recognition? But at the same time when his songs dominated [the charts] because of streaming, where is the fairness? What about the other artists who worked their asses off, but maybe didn’t have a million streams?

DJ Khaled, Chance the Rapper and Ed Sheeran

DJ Khaled, Chance the Rapper and Ed Sheeran… Corey Taylor is a fan of one of these men the others, not so much. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Hip-hop has dethroned rock’n’roll as America’s music

I could have told you this 20 years ago. The thing that bothers me is that people differentiate pop and hip-hop but they’re the same thing. I hate most new hip-hop. It’s all the same mush-mouthed bullshit, and it doesn’t say anything except I want to get fucked and drink champagne. It’s pathetic. The hip-hop I grew up with had a message. There’s a reason Chuck D is my hero, let me put it that way.

Artificial intelligence is taking over the world

A lot of people are upset because too many manufacturing jobs are gone, but there are so many companies coming up that need a workforce. There’s a reason the market is doing well in America even though the presidency is shit, because the prior presidency actually left behind a healthy infrastructure with growth happening. Trump’s going to try and take credit for that, but there’s always a two or four year hangover. The problem comes when you start to see deregulation happening on a federal level when it comes to big business; that’s when the machines come in, that’s when the outsourcing comes in.

But all of these insurance companies are hiring, all of these tech companies are hiring. People look at those industries and go: “I’m not intelligent or pretentious enough.” But if you want to feed your family, then a job is a job. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and go with what you have to do. Follow where the work is. If industries want to keep outsourcing and replacing people with programs, then stop buying those products. Hit them where it hurts. That’s what it comes down to.

Corey Talyor on stage with Slipknot

Corey Taylor on stage with Slipknot. Photograph: Raphael Dias/Getty Images

Everyone is appropriating metal culture

You’re seeing grandmas in Slipknot shirts. It’s really weird. It makes it easier for me to blend in, which I am completely happy to do; you get tired of the stares after a while. But punk and metallers take fascist imagery like shaved heads and black clothing and divorce it from racism and nationalism, to make a statement about disaffection; you’re now seeing people like Richard Spencer who are not only appropriating the imagery of nationalism, but also the rhetoric. The anger, the racism of it. It worries me. Oh, but Justin Bieber’s line in pseudo-metal T-shirts? He can kiss my ass.

  • Corey Taylor was speaking to Harriet Gibsone. America 51 is out now, published by Da Capo. His new album with Stone Sour, Hydrograd, is out now on Roadrunner; the bands UK tour begins at Birmingham Barclaycard Arena on 29 November. The Slipknot documentary Day of the Gusano will screen nationwide on 6 September.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/06/slipknot-corey-taylor-how-to-save-america-donald-trump

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