Skihad: What Will Happen to the Truckers?

My journey to see America had to begin with a road trip. First, that is what the budget would bear and, second, somebody cleverly placed the Rocky Mountains more than 2000 miles from my Washington, DC home. And, of course, what is an American story without the open road?

On January 24, I pulled out of the driveway with a tearful wave to my wife and the goal of spending the first night in Columbus, Ohio. Thereafter, the stops would be Moline, Illinois (the home of John Deere, a company in which I have a newly passionate interest), Grand Island, Nebraska, Laramie, Wyoming and, finally the goal: Jackson Hole, adjacent to Yellowstone National Park. Two thousand plus miles in five days: a schedule dictated by my trainer in deference to a historically dodgy back.

Except for Moline (about which more soon), the stops were chosen at six- to seven-hour driving intervals. There is a specific back and hamstring stretching ritual for driving days. It is laminated. Skihadists listen to their trainers, or they would be unable to do this.

Each morning, the travel ritual begins with the stretching routine and booking that night’s room online. Three stars and just north of a hundred bucks get you free parking, Internet, and breakfast in the company of America’s road warrior salespeople. You know you’ll make it before dark (helpful if the night’s reservation is guaranteed) because the traffic is more predictable than it is going up and down the East Coast. True, there is the possibility of dreadful weather, but that did not happen for me. The coal shovel I purchased and carefully placed in the back of the car has not moved since being deposited there in the Strosnider’s parking lot in Bethesda, Maryland.

Forty hours in a car gave me time to reflect on how much the country changes as you pass through it. Mostly, it is what you see on the road more than what you hear that signals the differences. The era of fumbling for local radio stations is long past. Instead, there are podcasts, satellite radio and audiobooks, all of which tend to diminish the sense of diversity I had hoped to find. And then there is Starbucks, which is now everywhere. Every one of them is just the same as every other one, and they have largely put the mom-and-pop shops out of business.

Given how pervasive traffic has been in my life, I first wondered how “traffic America” could even begin to understand “no traffic America.” Surely, the opposite is also true. If you are used to averaging 60 mph (or maybe 80) going from point A to point B in Nebraska or Wyoming, how do you possibly understand coastal motorists who cross their fingers and hope for 40. What do Midwesterners even discuss when they arrive at their destinations if the miserable traffic conversation is a non-starter?

Unscientifically, as I drove on these increasingly traffic-free roads, I noticed that trucks were a far higher percentage of my fellow motorists than was the case in the East. I doubted that there were more trucks but it did seem to me there were fewer cars.

Although we don’t really care or think much about the trucking industry in the East Coast, here are a few statistics I gathered in comparison to Apple Inc. Total trucking industry revenue exceeds $250 billion, while that of Apple is about $229 billion. There are 3.5 million truck drivers and 123,000 Apple employees. A trucker averages $32,000 in annual income while the revenue per Apple employee is $393,000. Who knew? By most measures, the transportation and distribution of goods is a huge business in the United States. It is an industry that employs significant numbers of men (and some women).

It also happens to be an industry that is facing an existential threat. Almost everyone has heard of driverless cars and the development of other sorts of autonomous vehicles. There is much about the technology that is extremely difficult, but placing a truck on a highway and programming it to drive 60 mph in the right lane is not in that category. If you had to try to guess the order in which autonomous vehicles would replace human drivers, put trucking higher on your list than the family car. A core industry of significant importance in America’s heartland might soon be gone.

If, or perhaps more accurately when, automation decimates the trucking industry, there will be no easily demonized foreign workers to blame. Our own technology industry will have ended those jobs.

Let’s be clear. I am no Luddite smashing the looms in 19th century England. I believe in the benefits of technology for everyone, but the advance of technology is not cost free and, in this case, the truck drivers will be paying that cost.

Will the truckers join the list of so-called “deplorables” who led me on this journey in the first place? Will some percentage of 3.5 million drivers be added to those who resent the coastal elites when their driving jobs join the manufacturing jobs that have disappeared with seemingly no effort made to replace them?

Many view globalization as an unmixed blessing. The benefits of cheaper goods imported from elsewhere go to nearly everyone. The costs of jobs lost to cheaper overseas competitors or now potentially to automation are borne only by those who have lost their jobs — and by the communities in which they live.

Theoretically, government could step in to alleviate the consequences of these economic realities, but government has not proven to be very good at doing so. Worse, the coastal elites — already deeply resented for their seemingly offhand disregard for the problem – are easily accused by demagogues of having little empathy for those whose lives have been disrupted.

I believe I was entering Ohio when I began to wonder, “how would the people living in the towns I was passing feel if the entirety of Wall Street were to be replaced by a computer?” Would the howls of protest from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut resonate as little in the heartland as the loss of industrial and manufacturing jobs resonates on the East Coast?