A Career Trucker Helps To Steer The Path For Self-Driving Trucks

via NPR, by Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi

When Jeff Runions started his trucking career nearly 40 years ago, he had high hopes for what the job might bring.

“I wanted the American dream.”

Since then he’s seen the industry from every step of the ladder — as an independent owner-operator, a full-time company driver, a parts manager, and finally a trucking depot manager.

In his latest job developing autonomous trucks, Runions, 58, has a front row seat to what many see as the future of the 700 billion dollar trucking industry. He’s found himself in the middle of a heated race between Silicon Valley juggernauts like Uber and Google to get their self-driving trucks out onto the road first.

“It’s like when they went to the moon,” Runions says. “We’re not going to the moon, but it feels kinda like a new technology’s coming up and how many people would think a semi would be driving itself?”

Runions, who lives in Jacksonville, Fla., works a startup called Starsky Robotics — a company smaller than Uber or Google. Instead of trying to beat their competition to developing fully autonomous vehicles, Starsky’s strategy is to develop trucks that are fully autonomous on the highway — then let remote drivers take the wheel from offices filled with arcade-style consoles, when they hit city streets.

The strategy is still in its testing phase: Runions is a safety-driver. He sits in the driver’s seat of the truck cabin, ready to take control if there’s trouble. His test rides range from an hour and a half to eight hours-long.

He also works alongside his company’s programmers to test and tweak the truck’s sensors and software.

“I come up with some suggestions once in a while and they do work. I’m not an engineer like these guys are, but sometimes they listen to me. So, that means I’m part of the team too,” he said.

Runions, after all, has nearly four decades of experience in the trucking industry under his belt.

In the mid-80s, he became an owner-operator, and purchasing a truck and leasing out his services on contract to freight companies.

For a while, Runions enjoyed the freedom that came with having his own truck and the camaraderie he found with fellow truckers he met while crisscrossing the country.

“We were like the cowboys of the old days, doing our own thing,” he said. “We were truckers, and we were young. We were having a good time.”

But as the years dragged on, life on the road began to lose its luster. Between regular sleep deprivation and a diet based on truck stop junk food, Runions started to feel that the trucker lifestyle was unhealthy. And the hectic schedule took a toll on his family life.

“You just get tired of the same stuff all the time and sleeping in the truck,” he said. You’re in this little box all the time. You can’t really go anywhere. The only thing you gotta do is go to sleep and get up and do it again.”

After fuel prices surged in the early 2000s, Runions decided that going it alone didn’t make financial sense for him anymore. After more than 20 years of contracting himself out, Runions sold his truck and took a job with a commercial trucking company.

But he soon found that the new gig had its own downsides.

“A normal driver that works for a company, they gotta stay out three weeks at a time, and they give them two days off when they get home,” he said. “Soon as they get home, after their two days, they gotta go right back out for 21 more days. That ain’t much of a life. Then you’re staying in that box again.”

Runions eventually worked his way up to management, but despite the position’s better pay, he found its hours and stress were even worse.

“I was always in there from 3 o’ clock in the morning to 3 o’ clock in the afternoon,” he said. “I was [worn] out, so I decided to try something that was different. And you can’t get more different than this.”

Runions came across an online ad for a technology company in search of experienced truck drivers. At first, he was unsure about getting behind the wheel of a self-driving truck, but he says he’s come to enjoy the work and its hours. “I’m home when I need to be,” he said. “I’m a happy person now.”

Runions says that since he began as a test-driver in early 2017, he’s heard pushback from people who doubt the safety of autonomous vehicles.

“People are scared of this technology because they don’t understand exactly what’s going on with it,” he said.

That’s one of the reasons Runions finds his new job meaningful.

“I feel like I’m helping make this truck right. And we want to make sure that it’s safe as it can be being on the highway,” he said.

He’s also heard from fellow truckers who fear that the new technology will put them out work. But Runions points out the of tens of thousands of open trucking jobs now that the industry is struggling to fill. He thinks that demand plus the growing need for remote drivers mean there’ll be plenty of trucking jobs down the road.

And, Runions says that allowing drivers to work remotely will ultimately make their lives better.

“If you can get where you can [have] a 40-hour hourly [weekly] job like a regular person and be home for your family, can’t ask no more than that,” Runions said.

“That’s like a regular life. A lot of drivers don’t have that.”

NPR’s Emily Sullivan produced this story for digital. NPR’s Eliza Dennis helped produce this story for broadcast.

Why millennials should start considering truck driving

Via NBC News, by Nicole Spector

Commercial truck driving has a reputation for grueling hours, weeks away from home, and a burly machismo that isn’t particularly welcoming to women. It’s high time that reputation got a makeover. A 2017 report by the American Trucking Association noted that the industry needs to hire almost 900,000 more drivers to meet rising demand, while the latest jobs report noted that 185,000 jobs have been added over the past four months alone. Bottom line: this sector is getting desperate for talent, and the problem is only worsening.

“The shipping infrastructure is facing a tight capacity crunch this year, and the small- to-mid-sized business shipper will feel the upward pressure in raised rates due to the lack of drivers and trucks available,” said Tim Story, EVP of freight operations at Unishippers. “The new mandate could result in a 4-8 percent loss in capacity (available trucks on the road).

And the workers prized by many of these companies aren’t getting any younger.

“The average age of commercial truck drivers is 55 and rising rapidly,” said Jon Gilbert of PLG Consulting. “The concern is that older, qualified truck drivers are retiring, and we are not getting adequate replacement drivers.”


Young people looking at a first or new career may be disenchanted by commercial trucking not only because of what Gilbert describes as an “arduous lifestyle,” but because they need a special kind of license (CDL) to qualify. Though some companies offer free training (tuition can cost up to $8,000), that’s hardly the standard, and either way it’s a solid investment of time. You also need to meet physical and health requirements, and, in what is perhaps the biggest obstacle the industry sees here, be at least 21 to cross state lines.

“Right off the bat we’re knocking a significant portion of potential workforces out with that age restriction,” Brian Andalman, director of carrier sales and client services at AFN, told NBC News. “If kids aren’t interested in doing college but can’t attack this arena, that’s a big hurdle.”

Neil Abt, senior editor at Fleet Owner, noted that there are efforts in the industry to “create graduated licensing programs that would allow 18-20-year-olds into the industry, as opposed to them starting a career elsewhere and being gone by the age of 21.”

“It is common for a speaker at a trucking conference to ask the crowd to raise their hands if they hope their children become truck drivers. Few, if any, ever raise their hands.”

However, the larger issue in appealing to younger adults seems to point to deeper roots.

“It is common for a speaker at a trucking conference to ask the crowd to raise their hands if they hope their children become truck drivers,” said Abt. “Few, if any, ever raise their hands.”

Abt notes that in recent years there has been more recruiting from companies via social media, which is “a good start”, but Story observes that companies are struggling to lure fitting candidates — and it’s hurting their wallets, especially if they’re shelling out higher pay to retain top talent.

“Carriers are having to spend more money on advertising to get people to apply, but only getting one to two drivers out of each 100 applications they receive,” said Story. “Between the training required, predominantly male-dominated field, age hurdles and more, carriers are having to pay drivers higher rates that will continue to increase. Right now, there aren’t enough qualified drivers in the applicant pool to satisfy the needs of the industry. Until a recruitment solution is identified, it will continue to be a problem.”

One company that seems to have found a solution, at least for itself, is UPS. Dan McMackin, public relations manager at UPS and a former truck driver himself, told NBC News that while the company does have to get creative during the Christmas season to bring in new workers, the company isn’t facing any general shortage of drivers.

“We have roughly 127,000 drivers, and about 20,000 of those are tractor/trailer,” McMackin said, adding that the majority of the drivers work in delivery. “About 12,000 or so are over the road, but most just go out in one day for around five hours and then return that distance. This makes it a very unique and attractive job offering because you don’t have to sleep in a truck cab or berth or eat at truck stops. We’re one of the largest users of rail in America, so any ground shipments going beyond about two states away from origin go on the rails.”

Though UPS does recruit outside the company, most of its drivers come from the UPS pipeline and, like McMackin, have held other internal positions before they work up to being a driver, where the perks are cushy. “They get a better package than I do: full pension, full healthcare, and a 401(k) that the company matches.”

McMackin adds that while he’s not certain of the stats, the job does skew mostly male, but that said, some of the best drivers he’s ever worked with have been women, and he hopes to see more taking the wheel.

That most truck drivers are men is a critical point, and an area where the sector has the most advancements to make.

Driver perks can include full pension, full healthcare, and a company-matched 401(k).

Ellen Voie, president and CEO of the Women In Trucking Association (WIT) is working to bring a sense of community to women drivers, as well as to foster initiatives that could attract more female truckers. Right now, only seven percent of the commercial trucker workforce is female. That number may have perhaps made sense 20 years ago, when you needed some brawn to navigate these massive vehicles, but trucks are so much more efficient today.

“There’s very little physical exertion anymore,” Voie told NBC News. “Even the hood releases and the dollies are hydraulic. You just push a button. There aren’t any challenges that women have that men don’t when it comes to the job. But they do prioritize differently. Women are much more concerned about safety, both in terms of the safety of the equipment and their personal safety. The [former concerns] mostly maintenance, but personal safety, that is huge. Women are much more situationally aware and cautious. They don’t park in the back where it’s dark. They will often have a dog in the truck with them, and a personal safety device like a can of hornet spray because it can reach up to 15 feet.”

Currently WIT has over 4,000 members, mostly in North America. The organization touts a Facebook group, a weekly newsletter, a quarterly magazine, various workshops and events, and an annual conference. Additionally, WIT works with manufacturers to provide women’s feedback and suggestions.

“We work with the manufacturers on design and ergonomics so that women can feel as comfortable as men, given that they generally have shorter arms and legs,” said Voie, adding that women often want their truck not to feel more like a home. Some manufacturers like Peterbilt, Voie notes, are paying attention. “We’re excited about their porta-potty and security alarm system.”

WIT is also optimistic about highlighting the job for the youngest generation. “In a few weeks, we’re coming out with a truck driving doll,” she told NBC News. “We’re just really trying to introduce this field as an option to girls.”


A subject that has been sending jitters through the trucking industry at large is the slow but certain rise of self-driving vehicles. Drivers worry that these will replace their jobs, and this only deters young people more. Why join a workforce that will be obsolete in a decade?

“The talk of autonomous vehicles is creating a fear of truck driver extinction,” said Story. “More truck drivers are migrating to lucrative job positions in construction or manual labor remediation, where there is no current automation threat.”

But some experts think that autonomous trucks could only help solve just about every problem the trucking industry has right now, including those of employees.

“Autonomous technologies could be the key,” said Abt. “This does not mean completely driverless, I cannot stress this enough. It is about making the job of driving easier, safer and maybe even more fun. A driver would still be needed in the vehicle, for emergencies, for handling the exit or entrance from the interstates, and for actually driving on the local roads. Additionally, there are technology limitations with weather, quality of road markings, and other issues.”

Also, a truly autonomous vehicle isn’t going to be standard anytime soon — not when you consider just how much is involved for safety and security.

“You may see them here and there in the next two years, but it will be at least 10 to 15 years before autonomous trucks can capture a significant portion of the industry,” said Vibhanshu Abhishek, assistant professor of information systems at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. “You need a ton of data to assess the optimal way to respond to whatever a truck is seeing or sensing to have the safest and best running vehicle. It will take a long time to get data for every kind of situation, and intuition is a difficult thing to build in.”

With self-driving trucks, maybe the driver won’t have stare out of the window all the time.

But even when it does happen, drivers shouldn’t think it means they’ll be out of work. If anything, they’ll just work differently, and perhaps more enjoyably.

“Maybe the driver won’t have to be staring all time out the window, and can do other things,” said Abhishek. “I can’t predict the exact business model, but I am certain that the whole trucking experience will change such that it will be appealing to young truck drivers. They’ll be attracted to the technology, and because the truck has so many safety features, they won’t need as much experience.”

“I also think that it will open the market up to more women,” said Abhishek. “It could really help solve this shortage, which is not just an American problem, but a global problem. Solving it could grow the economy worldwide.”