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The road ahead

Machines with Brains

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The road ahead
A look inside the small US towns that will be crushed by the trucking revolution
Illustrations by philiplueck
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Illustrations by philiplueck

For a brief time, Amin Shaikh had built the American dream.

A Pakistani immigrant, Shaikh grew up taking care of his seven sisters in a suburb just outside of Chicago. In 1998, after college, he used savings to franchise a Dunkin’ Donuts in Janesville, Wisconsin, working to grow the business over four years, and then selling it to buy a gas station a few miles north in Milton. Shaikh applied the same up-before-dawn, work-until-dark work ethic to building the Milton Travel Center over 10 years, quadrupling the volume of gas the station sold from when he first bought the business. Things were going well, so he took out a nearly $2 million loan to add a McDonald’s and car wash to the center.

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Amin Shaikh in Milton, WI. (Quartz/Dave Gershgorn)

Then the trucks stopped coming.

In 2014, in an attempt to curb traffic from rumbling through the small town of Milton and disturbing its 5,500 residents, the Wisconsin Department of Transportation built a bypass highway, effectively rerouting cars and trucks away from Shaikh’s business and others on the town’s main street. The 15,000 vehicles that had rolled down the town’s main street every day trickled to 3,200 between 2014 and 2015, according to data from the department.

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Welcome to Milton, population 5,546. (Quartz/Dave Gershgorn)

“‘This town is going to turn into a ghost town,’” Shaikh remembers saying to local lawmakers. Speaking from the front room of his new restaurant, Madistan, which he owns in the nearby city of Madison, he added, “The highway was taken. They killed my business.”

Unable to pay the loan due to the drop in business, Shaikh sold the Milton Travel Center in 2014. In 2016, the McDonald’s he had built closed down. A manager told local press at the time that the bypass “killed business.” The local Burger King had also shuttered a few months earlier. Shaikh bought the Milton Travel Center for $900,000 and spent another $2 million in upgrades. Today, the property is listed for sale at $350,000.

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The abandoned Burger King in Milton. (Quartz/Dave Gershgorn)

Milton is not unique. America’s constantly evolving patchwork of highways has undoubtedly boosted economic prosperity throughout the country by making transport of goods more efficient. But this has happened at the expense of small towns like Milton, no longer economically lifted by a steady stream of cars and trucks pulling off the road to grab a bite to eat or refill the gas tank.

Unfortunately, it will probably get worse. A coming revolution in the trucking and automotive industry promises vehicles that can drive themselves long distances. The machines won’t get tired and they won’t need to eat breakfast, meaning the towns and truck stops built to serve the needs of humans drivers could one day be irrelevant.

The Obama administration estimated that from 80% to all driving positions in the 3.5 million-worker trucking industry could disappear (though without a concrete timeframe). But that won’t happen in a vacuum: Fuel-guzzling semis and hungry drivers support a vast network of restaurants, gas stations, hotels, and rest stops across the country. When the trucks stop coming, these local businesses are in danger. This comes at a time when middle America is already facing immense competition from both foreign labor and the looming spectre of more direct automation. These blue-collar towns, which primarily voted for Donald Trump in hopes of reprieve from foreign labor competition, will likely be hit hardest by automation of manufacturing and food services. A 2015 study asserted that 87% of jobs lost in manufacturing could already be attributed to automation, rather than to trade.

The economic contribution truckers make to these small towns is an important secondary benefit of a manual trucking industry, according to Aaron VanDevender, chief scientist at Founders Fund, a prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm.

“Trucking has two major functions: It’s both a goods-distribution system and a wealth-distribution system,” says VanDevender. “If the trucks become autonomous, it becomes a much more effective goods-distribution system, but a less effective wealth-distribution system. If the trucks are robotic and don’t stop anymore, these [small, trucking-dependent] towns cannot exist.”

Founders Fund has invested in ride-sharing company Lyft, which recently partnered with Alphabet’s Waymo, General Motors, and startup nuTonomy to accelerate the use of autonomous vehicles on the road. Waymo has also reportedly been exploring the use of self-driving trucks. Uber, the embattled ride-sharing leader, acquired autonomous trucking firm Otto for $680 million in August 2016. While Otto has had a bumpy road—firing its technical lead Anthony Levandowski, the key figure in a major lawsuit brought against Uber by Waymo, and getting kicked out of testing in California—the company is still pursuing its technology in Arizona. Volvo is also working on a variety of autonomous trucks, including those for garbage collection, as well as working in parallel with Daimler to build autonomous truck platooning in Europe. In short, the technology is coming.

A view from the driver’s seat
A view from the driver’s seat

If a battle between humans and automation is going to play out in America’s small towns and truck stops, the place to watch is the Iowa 80 truck stop, which claims to be the largest in the world, serving 15,000 trucks a day. Interstate 80 highway is the country’s sixth-longest route, spanning from New York to California. In a sea of rolling hills dotted with cows, it’s an island of chrome, gasoline, and Taco Bell for those who live their lives on America’s highways.

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World’s largest truck stop, Iowa 80. (Quartz/Dave Gershgorn)

In the truck stop complex, there’s a dentist, a barber shop, a 60-seat movie theater, 24 showers, and a handful of restaurants and fast food joints. Commemorative 64 oz. “trucker mugs” line the building’s front windows, and the back of the store serves as temple to the truck: An enormous Peterbilt semi-truck looms over rows of shelves crammed with auto parts. Behind it, a 15-foot wall of decorative LED truck lights flashes.

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Peterbilt semi-truck inside Iowa 80. (Quartz/Dave Gershgorn)

Some truckers at the stop had read about automation, but were unsure of how quickly self-driving vehicles will be able to completely replace them, stressing that the job demands the ability to adapt to new situations quickly—something that machines have been proven to struggle with.

“There are too many variables,” a trucker named Terry (who didn’t give his last name), told Quartz. “Vehicles aren’t on tracks.”

With his arms crossed, revealing a tattoo across his left forearm that reads “Keep on trucking,” Steve, (who also would not give his last name), explains that trucks behave much differently than cars in adverse driving situations, due to their size and shape. For example, he says the broad side of trucks are often buffeted by unpredictable gusts of wind, especially in western states such as Wyoming, where canyons can funnel the air. While machines can typically react quicker than humans and never get distracted, the technology doesn’t perform well in situations it hasn’t experienced before. These rare, hard-to-model data points that the truck needs to learn from are called edge cases.

“Because of their rarity, collecting data depicting such unusual circumstances can be expensive and difficult to scale,” Carnegie Mellon researchers wrote last year in a paper presented at a Detroit automotive technology conference, nodding to the challenges that edge cases present.

But autonomy isn’t all or nothing.

Many expect a period of time when semi-autonomous trucks are able to drive themselves for the bulk of the trip, only requiring human intervention when road conditions are particularly rough or for the beginning and end of trips. Planes serve as a good example of this, as they’re highly automated machines that still legally require humans in control during key portions of the journey, especially during takeoff and landing. Already, current state legislation over autonomous vehicles used for ride-sharing or research require a human inside ready to take control. The technology may get there quickly, but the transition to entirely driverless vehicles will be slow.

That said, in a talk with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, Uber engineer Ognen Stojanovski suggested to lawmakers that truckers will be able to sleep while their semis hurtle down long stretches of highways, allowing them to travel much farther without stopping. Truckers tell Quartz that much of the time they spend stopped is mandated, due to laws limiting continuous driving times and encouraging rest. New laws that require electronic tracking of working hours will only make enforcement more stringent. But the ability to sleep while the trucks drive could be a workaround for these laws, as suggested by Stojanovski, bypassing many of the usual stopping points in the process.

Humans will likely continue accompanying their freight as the truck drives itself for years, but technologists predict the steady march of economics and technological reliability will eventually eliminate those positions as well.

Quartz/Dave Gershgorn
Main Street no more
Main Street no more

This network of truck stops and local businesses is spread across America’s highways for a reason—given road conditions, weather, traffic, and the irregularity of route schedules, truckers can’t exactly plan where they stop. Truck stops and travel plazas along interstate highways represent 2.2 million jobs and 97,000 businesses in the US, according to NATSO, a national truck stop advocacy group. And that’s only along the interstates. Many truckers will eschew homogenous highway truck stops for local businesses, even keeping their favorite haunts closely-guarded secrets, according to three truckers who spoke to Quartz.

Back in Milton, the Parkview Cafe, a small diner, was one of those favored spots by truckers. You’ve been to the Parkview Cafe—at least in spirit. Strong coffee is poured into off-white ceramic mugs, while patrons sit in vinyl-upholstered booths clinking forks and scooping up eggs.

Natalie Ashiku, owner of the Parkview Cafe, drops food off at tables, hustling from behind the diner’s counter. Her son, Kushtin, also runs food, and tallies up checks from around the restaurant.

Natalie Ashiku and her son Kushtin in the Parkview Cafe.
Natalie Ashiku and her son Kushtin in the Parkview Cafe. (Quartz/Dave Gershgorn)

“We don’t get any people with trucks, they’re gone,” Ashiku says. “It’s just bad engineering,” she added about the bypass, “there’s a hell of a lot of better places they could’ve spent their money.”

At the cafe’s counter, Dave Kress, a retired trucker who settled down in Milton, says finding the little mom-and-pop restaurants made trucking worthwhile, at least some of the time.

“I don’t miss driving, but I do miss that,” he said. “That’s why you see a lot of fat truckers.”

Milton is far from the only town that’s suffered after traffic has been diverted to larger routes. Route 66, arguably America’s most famous highway and a pioneer for the idea of a highway that could connect one side of the country to another, is the most stark example of what can happen to local businesses when traffic no longer flows.

“Route 66 was literally a Main Street for countless communities along its 2,400-mile length. The advent of the interstate turned many a Route 66 downtown to a near ghost town,” researchers from Rutgers wrote in a 2012 report.

The report focused on the highway’s economic pivot to tourism. Once the connector of America’s heartland to the west coast, Route 66 is now littered with abandoned gas stations, restaurants and ghost towns. Rusted-out cars punctuate the landscape, desolate but for tourist sites and photo opportunities. Twenty-five towns with the most iconic Route 66 attractions were reported to have 20% of the population living below the national poverty line, compared to the national rate of 13.5%, according to the Rutgers study.

No attractions for miles.
No attractions for miles. (Quartz/Dave Gershgorn)

VanDevender grew up in Albuquerque, close to where Route 66 once ran by the city, and says he’s visited hundreds of sites on the old highway.

“You had a lot of truckers, you had a lot of economic value pouring through that pipeline, and a lot of towns put down nearby to capitalize on that activity,” he said. But when highways like I-40, which superseded the path of much of Route 66, were built as a part of the interstate system, those towns became inconvenient for those traveling the larger highways at much faster speeds.

VanDevender predicts autonomous vehicles will force more people toward cities, and urban areas will compound, a consequence of less economic stimulation in the “between” places. The term “flyover states” may soon have to be amended to “drive-by states.”

For Shaikh, it’s too late to cushion the blow of losing truck traffic. After selling the Milton Travel Center, he was out of work for two years. One of Shaikh’s cousins suggested starting a Pakistani restaurant, so he funded the endeavor and the two co-opened the restaurant. But due to familial strife the cousin bailed, transferring ownership back over to Shaikh, who is now responsible for a business he didn’t truly intend to start. In what little free time he has, Shaikh is suing the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for what he says is governmental negligence, after he claims the department failed to study and clearly explain what would happen to his business. Although a court recently ruled against him, Shaikh plans to appeal the decision to a higher court.

The truckers aren’t giving up, either. Standing in the shadow of the massive, human-controllable Peterbilt truck at the Iowa 80 truck stop, Terry waxes poetic about the outcome of humans and robots travelling America’s highways together.

“Get the body bags out.”

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