Sometimes we feel as if we already live in a real-world version of George Orwell’s “1984.”  Six decades after the term “Big Brother” epitomized Orwell’s account of  how “every sound you made was

overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized,” we find every computer keystroke we make is recorded, every phone call logged – at work and often at home. The field of trucking is no different. GPS devices track trucks for most major companies.

Now, on-board computers measure the efficiency of every gear shift and the amount of pressure applied for gas and brakes – not to mention ignitions governed by fingerprint ID and Breathalyzer systems. One firm has developed a truck that robotically drives itself as far as 132 miles without any remote control needed.

All of this has truckers wondering ...

When does the truck start driving you?
Tomorrow's technology today means that a driverless truck is not science fiction

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer


Don Pardue exhales while accelerating his blue 2002 Peterbilt down a Mississippi interstate. Pardue had a technological glitch this morning, and you can feel the tension in his polite Southern tone as he explains the 30-minute delay.

Pardue – a team driver with wife Susan – has owned the first of every gadget in recent generations of electronics. He paid more than $6,000 for his first cell phone 25 years ago. His truck hosted the first generation of fax machines in the 1980s and the first road tracker in the late 1980s. He even owned a Radio Shack computer back in the day.

Technology helps the Pardues make good money, Don said, even while the economy is lackluster. He and Susan use a laptop with WiFi capability to check load boards, diesel prices and schedule routing.

He also downloads numbers from his engine’s ECM regularly to check idle times and fuel mileage. Pardue watches his engine numbers the way a private company tracks an employee’s idling times and gear shifting efficiency. He downloads a wide variety of stats to keep a feel for his engine.

“Technology helps cut the corners,” Pardue told Land Line. “It’s the only way you can stay competitive in this market. I get the same fuel mileage anyone else does.”

A growing field of computer-based technology has seen its market share building for the past few years – technology that goes beyond gizmos.

Electronic on-board recorders, automatic braking systems and crash-avoidance technology that adapts for obstacles near trucks are all on the market. Also available are new GPS-based systems that can remotely shut down trucks’ engines and lock their doors and windows.

Some systems claim to outfit a terrorism-proof truck, which is the kind of technology that brings terms like “Big Brother” to mind, even for techies like Pardue.

The technology industry sees things differently.

For the greater good?

EOBRs are becoming increasingly popular with motor carriers and some drivers.

Although many truckers and groups such as OOIDA oppose federal mandates to require EOBRs, such technology can protect good drivers and make record keeping easier and more convenient, said one official from a leading EOBR manufacturer.

“We’ve had tickets reversed in court for speeding and for idling,” said Tom Flies, senior vice president for XATA, which claims it manufactured the first paperless logbook.

“The information can really go both ways. One way it’s looked at like Big Brother. In a lot of cases, it’s really the driver’s friend.”

Drivers can’t be blamed for being wary of technology. Sometimes changes are thrust at them with little opportunity for debate.

In April 2007, Nicole Nason, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, discussed automatic braking technologies and the future of driving at the Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress.

“It was easy to convince people to make crashworthiness part of their purchasing decision.” Nason said then. “People responded to the message that they needed to be protected from someone else. But the next generation of safety technology could provoke a different response.

“People may be reluctant to give up some control of their cars because they think they are good drivers. Drivers will have to learn to trust the safety systems.”

Safety systems and eventually more.

How much more?

New inventions targeting truckers make headlines almost every day.

Bendix has been aggressively marketing its stabilization system, which uses brakes and a computer system to slow and straighten a trailer or truck that begins swaying and losing control.

The retail industry is considering adding radio frequency identification, or RFID, chips to individual products, which will allow tracking of product from manufacture through consumption, tracking shipping, inventory and consumer use.

Many company drivers are already well aware of electronic on-board recorders and their ability to record every time a driver brakes, accelerates or flips a toggle switch.

Such data can be tracked in real time by motor carriers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration researches and proposes new safety requirements for cars and trucks every year. Rae Tyson, chief spokesman for the agency, said NHTSA has moved from crash-impact technology to crash-avoidance technology as the preferred method for protecting lives on the road.

“It’s our belief that at this point we’ve probably gotten most of the benefits that are to be gained by improving a vehicle’s ability to withstand a crash. We’re pretty much at the limit,” Tyson told Land Line. “We think the next frontier is crash avoidance.”

Lane departure warnings and cruise controls that modify speed automatically during traffic slowdowns are being tested and presented to NHTSA officials. Tyson said that NHTSA officials decide whether to recommend requiring any given technology after weighing benefits against product costs.

“If you’ve got something that’s going to add $500 to the cost of the vehicle and is only going to save one life a year, that’s going to be a pretty hard sell,” Tyson said.Safety is often the sales vehicle used to push new technologies.A company called IVOX has released its DriverScore 2.0 software system, which uses on-board recorders to predict how a driver will perform in the future.“This gives insurers the opportunity to distinguish safe drivers from drivers who are simply accident-free, promoting safer driving and accident prevention,” a company official stated in a press release, adding that a trucking company’s insurance rates could be based on the driver predictions.

The erosion of privacy?

Deborah Johnson is chair of the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia, where she is also a professor. Johnson has written several books about technology, including “Computer Ethics,” and she was the co-editor of “Computers, Ethics and Social Values.

”Authorities often frame the debate about technology and tracking as being personal privacy versus security, Johnson said, but that argument misses a key element: the social aspect.

“Personal privacy always gets trumped. It always loses when what is at stake is security and minimizing risk,” Johnson told Land Line. “There is much more at stake than just personal privacy.”

After a given technology becomes commonly used and the public becomes comfortable with its existence, Johnson said that often authorities use the technology for other purposes – a phenomenon she calls “function creep.”

By relying on function creep, the government can say drivers will be more safe and efficient with EOBRs watching their every move, yet that data can be recorded, stored in a database, and used for a variety of purposes not related to safety or efficiency.

People begin behaving differently when they know they’re being watched, Johnson said, and that will create a social atmosphere of passive workers who won’t make decisions for themselves.

“The whole idea of democracy was, you have active participation and we all benefit from each others’ development of our capacities,” Johnson said.

“This surveillance of truckers undermines trust between employers and employees. It doesn’t trust that they can make judgments and decisions; it just treats them like machines. The next step is, ‘Why have people driving the truck?’ ”

That’s a question the experts say will be answered sooner rather than later.

Who’s in control?

Read off a list of more recent computer-based trucking innovations, and you risk sounding like an obsessed science fiction fan.

One company is making waves by creating what its officials say is the first hijack-proof truck security system. Astrata – a company started by Martin Euler, from Great Britian, and Tony Harrison, from Ireland – is marketing a global location platform product.

Called the Astrata GLP, the cigarette pack-sized black box is a combination on-board recorder and security system. The GLP can be wired into a truck’s system to remotely shut off the engine, lock doors and windows and flash lights and horns from a command control center.

Euler told Land Line the system has been used extensively in Singapore, where the national government wanted to thwart hijackers from stealing loads of high-priced goods and hazardous materials.

Singapore’s government operates the command control center, but U.S. motor carriers could operate their own command control centers, Euler said.

“If it’s a decision to stop a vehicle, that is not a decision that I as a commercial organization ought to be making,” Euler said.

Since the system gained acceptance in Singapore, Euler said Nestlé, DHL International and Brunei Shell Petroleum have also become customers, and American trucking companies have started inquiring about the GLP.

Thieves in Singapore have tested the system, Euler said, acknowledging that at least one thief eluded authorities by kicking out a truck’s window after the system locked the truck’s doors and windows to “hold” him for law enforcement.

“People have exited the vehicle, but the vehicle has been recovered with the cargo,” Euler said. “The primary concern is recovery of the vehicle with the cargo intact.”

The iTruck

Richard Bishop believes it will be a matter of only years before trucks can operate themselves, with absolutely no need for a human driver.

Bishop works with research institutions, OEMs and governments through his consulting firm and operates a Web-based magazine that tracks intelligent vehicles. He has worked with government agencies such as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Government grants have increased in recent years to promote transportation automation, said Bishop, while truck-only lanes have begun springing up on interstates throughout the country.

When there are truck-only lanes on the entire Interstate system, which he believes will be the case in 10 to 15 years, Bishop said driverless truck technology will be ready and trucking companies will be motivated to begin automated trucking.

“At some point there will be long corridors of exclusive truck lanes,” Bishop told Land Line. “The technology is pretty much ready. It really is a matter of one of the OEMs pulling the trigger and using the resources to turn that into a product. It’s very much within reach.”

Automated highways could use a combination of sensors on the trucks to measure distances from lane edges and other vehicles, and sensors on vehicles may be able to communicate with each other to avoid crashes.

Automated trucks have been tested extensively as far back as the 1990s, Bishop said. In 2003, the CHAUFFEUR project in Europe included demonstrations of three-truck platoons led by one driver.

“It is a very viable concept in an exclusive truck-lane situation. You can run the numbers and, in terms of labor alone, get a pretty good cost-benefit ratio,” Bishop said. “I kind of see that as inevitable. I see that happening before automated cars, which will happen, but the pull there is not so strong. On the truck side, it will be a matter of economics.”

The U.S. military has sponsored competitions during the past few years for firms like Oshkosk to develop driverless trucks to deliver supplies to troops in war zones.

Oshkosh Truck Corp. built the TerraMax truck, which has successfully navigated demonstration courses of seven miles and urban-style courses of 60 miles and 132 miles.

John Deck, chief engineer for Oshkosh’s unmanned systems, said the TerraMax stays within traffic lanes, can negotiate through a crowded parking lot, find a parking spot, pull in, back out, merge into a 10-second traffic gap without impeding traffic flow, and negotiate the correct sequence to accelerate through a crowded, four-way stop intersection.

“They are all very, very specific,” said Deck, who added that the vehicle has yet to cause damage.

In January, GM announced that its new driverless Tahoe SUV can drive itself through 60 miles of traffic without any help from humans, using technology that includes lasers and cameras.

Technology developed in part by TerraMax is likely to make its way to personal and commercial vehicles one day, said Joaquin Salas, Oshkosh’s defense marketing communications manager.“

Stability control, driver assist, warnings for anti-lock brakes and proximity warnings: It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to see these technologies in over-the-road trucking,” Salas said.

How far is too far?

Tom Weakley spent a dozen years driving over-the-road beginning in the 1960s.Now the director of operations for the OOIDA Foundation, Weakley watches government safety studies for references to collision-avoidance technologies.The most proven collision-avoidance system in the world continues to be training drivers how to drive safely, Weakley said.

“We’ve become very gadget oriented,” Weakley said. “Cars talk to you, tell you where to go, where to turn. All the gadgets in the world – unless you start putting rails on the roads, and hook them up and make them stay straight – are not going to make our roads fail-safe.”

Crash-avoidance systems might be beneficial for drivers who don’t pay attention, or who aren’t well trained or experienced, Weakley said. However, for drivers used to watching truck mirrors and the windshield, the systems could prove to be an expensive distraction.

“Sometimes it’s good to be reaching for that gearshift. Reaching down gives you something to do, and you listen to the sound of that engine,” Weakley said. “Otherwise, you can become almost robot-like.”Todd Spencer, executive vice president of OOIDA, said, “Technology that actually helps drivers make the roads safer may be cost-justified, but runaway technology is not a true benefit for anyone. You can’t just do it ‘because you can.’ ”

Most truckers would have a hard time swallowing truck engines being remotely controlled, or dealing with highway truck operations driven by robots, said Suzanne Stempinski, a former team driver who is now Land Line’s field editor.

Stempinski said truckers would be just about as willing to give up control of their truck as the Lone Ranger would be willing to give up his horse, “Silver.”

“There’s always that fear of someone watching over you,” Stempinski said. “Truckers see themselves as the last American cowboys fighting to be free; they really do.”

What’s the big deal?

Euler called Land Line from London, a city whose numerous public cameras have made it infamous for its video surveillance of every move residents make, offering hints of the world George Orwell foreshadowed in his book “1984.”

Oh, and remember the hijack-proof Astrata GLP? The device is currently in use in the United States, being tested by some trucking firms. Euler said because the drivers don’t know which trucks are equipped with the units, he’s bound to silence.

Do truckers have a valid point that their privacy is violated?“

Presumably they’re not doing anything wrong, so there’s nothing to be concerned about, is there?” Euler asked.

Drawing the line

Don’t tell that to Pardue.The 55-year-old trucker plans on driving “till the Good Lord puts me in the grave,” and said he’ll keep up with the latest technology.

He won’t, however, cede control of his truck.

“Technology doesn’t scare me,” Pardue said. “But you can’t have control of this vehicle in somebody else’s hands. I can disable my truck, but you can’t have someone sitting a thousand miles away disable this truck when it’s going down the highway.“

There is no way anybody is going to do that to my truck. I’ll fight that tooth and nail. I’ll spend every dime I have in court, and so will every other owner-operator. … They said they’d never track us by Qualcomm and match our logs by Qualcomm, but they are.“That’s crazy.” LL