QZ&A

Want to know what’s going on in trucking? Ask a trucker.

Want to know what’s going on in trucking? Ask a trucker.
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Finn Murphy received his commercial drivers license in 1980 and has been schlepping across the US ever since. Much has changed since his first haul, which he recounts in his memoir, “The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road,” but he’s also spent a lot of time pondering the future of the industry he loves. We caught up with Finn recently to discuss everything from automation to wages to his love of really long podcasts.


Welcome to our field guide on trucking. Check out other parts of our deep dive here.


Quartz: You started driving in 1980. What’s changed since then?
Murphy: Today, it’s a lot harder to get a commercial driver’s license. Back in 1980, I was driven to the motor vehicle place in Stamford, Conn., and there was a little tractor trailer and an orange cone out on the road. I got in with the examiner and he said, ‘Get to that orange cone,’ and I did. And he said, ‘Great! Here’s your license!’ Now you have to go to a truck driving school that costs about $7,000 and it’s a month-long course. You have to get drug tested and do all kinds of driving and maintenance tests. The parameters it takes to get a CDL now are much more strict than they used to be.

What are your thoughts about automation in trucking?
First thing is, this is basically a space race. You have six or seven of the most aggressive, best capitalized companies in the world racing to be first with an autonomous vehicle. You got Alphabet, Amazon, Uber, Ford, Toyota, and Carnegie Mellon University on one side. Everybody wants to get to level five autonomy, which means no driver. And everybody is concentrating on trucking because the customers are waiting for that in the trucking industry.

Automation will happen in trucking first. In order for people to give up driving their own cars, it’s going to take a cultural shift more than a technological shift. But moving to autonomous trucks isn’t going to take that cultural shift because companies want to get rid of truck drivers—they don’t want to pay them.

The second piece of that is that the technological challenges it’s going to take to get to full autonomy are profound, but they’re only technological challenges. They will be solved when you have billions of billions of dollars from these companies going into trying to solve this. When I talk to people at truck stops they say “what if” this or “what if” that—the objections are always technical. I’m not saying that these are easy technical issues, but they will be solved.

The third leg of this is safety. A couple of months ago there was a woman killed by an autonomous vehicle in Phoenix, Ariz. Arizona suspended autonomous vehicles and everyone is up in arms because this person was killed by an autonomous vehicle. On that same day, 110 Americans were killed on the roadways by their fellow human beings. There are people killed every day, millions of serious injuries, uncounted property damage. This mayhem on our highways has been going on so long we don’t think of it as unusual. We have a huge safety problem, but when autonomous technology is approved, it’s going to save a lot of lives.

The fourth is we’re going to have millions of truck drivers thrown out of work. I think society needs to answer this. Not “let’s hold back the technology because people are going to be thrown out of work.” That’s never worked.

Besides even if we don’t do it here, they’ll do it in Dusseldorf or Singapore. We can’t hold back technology, but what we can do is take a more serious view of what technology is doing to the social fabric and what it’s doing about job losses.

It took a couple hundred years for the weavers to be supplanted by the power loom. It took a generation for the buggy manufacturer to go out of business. He could see the horse was being supplanted by the automobile, but it took a generation. But now it takes months or a year or two for these changes to work through the employment pool and people are getting thrown out of work everywhere.

It’s only hitting lower paying jobs right now, but that will change. Even today, computers are reading leases and analyzing them. Some lawyers are going to be put out of business, accountants will be put out of business. What are we going to do with these displaced people? Aside from the human considerations, there’s a political consideration. You don’t want millions of people with lots of time on their hands who are pissed off. It starts causing problems. And we’re already seeing those problems coming from a disaffected group of Americans who don’t see a way to have economic participation.

Do you feel like this conversation is happening in the trucking industry in a meaningful way?
It’s out of sight out of mind. Amongst my colleagues, I’m a total outlier. People say these changes will take 15 to 20 years. I say one to three. You can’t spend billions of dollars on these autonomous vehicles with a 20-year time frame. If you’re Apple or Alphabet, you wanna get this done.

You write about the hierarchy of drivers. Can you walk us through that?
There is a big difference between the top and the bottom. I tell anyone thinking of becoming a trucker that you need to bring another skill beyond driving to the job. If you know how to move computers, if you know how to help a family navigate a transition and do that with diplomacy and tact, that’s a value add. If you know how to tarp strange-shaped things like missile turbines or stuff like that, if you know how to haul and pack a trailer full of hay—all are all value-added things that will be the last to go when it comes to autonomous vehicles.

All of us look down on the people who haul live animals, the chicken chokers, because that’s the dirtiest job there is. The whole trailer stinks on a sunny summer Sunday. No one wants to park near it. You wake up in the middle of the night and you can’t breathe, and then you have to muck the thing out with a shovel. Definitely the lowest.

Most people don’t realize that truckers are contractors, the structure of the gig is so different. What does that mean day to day?
For me, I lease the truck and pay a monthly payment derived from my revenue. Some drivers are paid by the mile, which is what most freight haulers for big companies do. This is a huge problem—it’s called a sweatshop on wheels. If you’re on I-80 going to Nebraska and you have 350 miles, you’re doing fine—but what what if you’re in Denver traffic for six hours? You’re not making a dime. What if you’re in a warehouse or terminal and you wait four hours before you can get to your truck? These guys put in all these hours that they’re not getting paid for.

Spin this forward a bit. What are the longer-term implications when it comes to autonomy?
I think that 30 years from now it’s going to be illegal for people to drive their own cars. People are going to look at us like people who smoked. You guys are a bunch of savages! You were killing people on the roads and injuring millions and you didn’t even think about it! I think the way this will happen is insurance will keep going up and up and up. Fifty years from now it’s going to cost you $25,000 to insure your car, but it will cost you $20 dollars to call one.

One of the things you’ll hear from the industry is when someone like me says, ‘You’re going to have millions of people thrown out overnight,” they’ll say that’s not going to happen because we’re going to need more people for last-mile deliveries. That’s people in step vans, so not really truck drivers anymore. I’m here in Colorado, where Amazon is building a huge warehouse that goes on for a mile and they’re building those all over the country. Those are for last mile deliveries and, ultimately, those are going to be done by drones.

So will drones be as regulated as drivers? Do you think most people realize how regulated trucking is?
Even the truckers don’t realize it. You have this cowboy freedom, open road myth and it’s one of the most regulated jobs you could ever be in. You have to get monthly urine testing, you have your electronic logging device hooked into your truck and it’s going to log everything you do: accelerating, fuel consumption, breaking, shifting, overall safety. Some big freight companies have 24-7 video in the cab. It isn’t that free.

You, like a lot of truckers, are a voracious NPR and audiobook consumer. How has that changed the job?
It’s so different than in the past. You have podcasts! Millions of them! And most of them are free. You’ve also got audiobooks. When I started, I made a deck in my sleeper and I had room under the mattress for six hundred cassette tapes. Nowadays it’s all on the phone. It’s awesome.

What are you liking on long drives?
I loved Team of Rivals. Give me the long ones! You’ve heard of Hardcore History? I love Dan Carlin. He’ll do 22 hours on the Peloponnesian War and I don’t think it’s long enough! You know what else works for audio books? Books that for whatever reason were inaccessible when you tried to read them. I tried to read Infinite Jest as a book and I couldn’t do it, but it was great as an audiobook.

What’s the one thing you wish people would know about truckers?
Next time you see a truck out there, just remember to look up at that person and remember it’s another American with aspirations and an emotional life who is trying to get food on the table.

This interview has been edited and condensed.