Commercial truck drivers are a different breed. They gravitate toward an existence on the move because they savor the freedom of the road. Sitting behind the wheel means not being trapped behind a desk. And stepping up into a cab every morning instead of going into an office means not having a supervisor watching over your shoulder.
At least, it used to.
If you’re a commercial driver on the road today, chances are, if you haven’t had cameras installed on—and in—your vehicle yet, you will in the near future. So, what do all these renegade free spirits think of the new surveillance regime taking over the industry? While there’s definitely some outrage among a lot of old-school truckers, the changes aren’t causing as much pushback as you might expect.
To understand why this is the case, you have to step back and look at some of the headwinds facing the transportation industry—headwinds that were getting frighteningly strong even before the coronavirus pandemic.
Nuclear verdicts are penalties exceeding $10 million. In 2019, Schnitzer Southeast was forced to pay a verdict of $280 million, perhaps the biggest legal penalty against a trucking company in history. From 2012 to now, the size of the average verdict against a trucking company has grown from $2.6 million to over $17.5 million.
This is despite the fact that a study conducted by the University of Michigan in 2013 found that in 81% of accidents involving a truck and a car, the driver of the car is at fault. Unfortunately, verdicts don’t favor truck drivers anywhere near four times out of five.
Now, there are a variety of reasons for the growing risk of being hit with a nuclear verdict—from unscrupulous lawyers and healthcare providers to inadequate training as a result of driver shortages—but the fact is, no commercial driver wants to be responsible for costing employers this much money.
Knowing that four out of five accidents involving a car and a truck are caused by the driver of the car, truck drivers see the upside of cameras that can provide evidence of what really happens on the road.
Skyrocketing Insurance Rates
Since 2013, insurance premium costs per mile have increased by more than 17%. Just from 2017 to 2018, there was a 12% hike, bringing the average rate to about 8.4 cents per mile. This is one of the primary reasons 795 trucking companies were shuttered in 2019. That’s about 24,000 trucks parked on lots with no need of drivers.
While insurance companies have yet to offer discounts to fleets for installing cameras, they do indirectly reward trucking companies who implement telematics by cutting costs for those with improved safety records. With cameras and artificial intelligence technology, fleets can monitor driving performance, with special regard for safety issues like speeding, tailgating, and texting while driving. Fleet managers can get notifications in real time of unsafe behaviors—and they can alert the drivers themselves. Meanwhile, they can keep publicly posting performance metrics, so the company as a whole can improve its record—and lower the costs of insurance.
This may sound like a violation of privacy, as the machines help managers spy on their drivers. But, as long as the higherups have avoided the pitfall of allowing an adversarial relationship to take hold between them and their drivers, those drivers will be able to rest assured that whatever benefits the company indirectly benefits them.
Sometimes the message can be as simple as, “To stay in business, we need to lower our insurance rates, and to do that we need to use cameras to track performance so we can improve our safety record.” But drivers usually don’t even need it spelled out like that; they’re already well aware of the threat posed by runaway rates.
And then there are the truck drivers who actually enjoy the performance tracking. Yes, that’s right—some drivers, especially younger ones, like having metrics and footage they can use to compete with one another and up their scores.
The age of the average truck driver on the road today is north of 50, but one of the ways the industry is trying to appeal to new recruits is by turning training into a game. Companies post everyone’s safety record, highlighting numbers that demonstrate good driving, and then reward the drivers somehow for getting the highest scores.
This practice, known as gamification, appeals to younger drivers who came of age using social media platforms like Facebook, so they’re less averse to being public with their failures and triumphs. This upcoming generation of drivers also grew up playing more video games, especially the type that provides some sort of immersive simulation experience. Rather than being put off by the presence of cameras then, these younger drivers like the immediate feedback and the competition that’s such a big part of telematic performance tracking.
But even the older drivers can see the benefit of cameras when it comes to being exonerated in accident cases. Truckers pay attention to big legal decisions involving their fellow drivers—when they hear a colleague’s job has been saved by camera footage showing the other driver was at fault, the idea of having cameras installed in their own vehicles suddenly becomes less unappealing.
The Automation Apocalypse
And then there’s the pending dawn of the autonomous vehicle takeover. Drivers know that their competition in the future won’t just come from other drivers, but from machines. Self-driving trucks won’t do any complaining about cameras, so truckers know making them an issue today won’t do them any good in the long run.
Automated trucks also up the ante when it comes to safety. There will be an initial hurdle as companies struggle to assure everyone else on the roads their systems are safe. But eventually the new fleets will likely achieve better safety records than any human drivers can manage. As today’s drivers look down the barrel of being replaced by a machine, any animus they have toward being recorded will tend to dissipate.
At least for the foreseeable future, though, even automated vehicles will still have drivers in them to take over under some circumstances. Complete autonomy is still 5 or 10 years off, at best. So, human drivers will still be needed behind the wheel for a while. Knowing this won’t be the case for long, though, they’re less worried about having cameras on them while they’re driving.
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