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Automation, or Perhaps Not (At Least for a While)

Posted by on | February 5, 2018 | Comments Off

I thought this letter from Dan Hanson to Tyler Cowen was really thought provoking:

I wonder how many of the people making predictions about the future of truck drivers have ever ridden with one to see what they do?

One of the big failings of high-level analyses of future trends is that in general they either ignore or seriously underestimate the complexity of the job at a detailed level. Lots of jobs look simple or rote from a think tank or government office, but turn out to be quite complex when you dive into the details.

For example, truck drivers don’t just drive trucks. They also secure loads, including determining what to load first and last and how to tie it all down securely. They act as agents for the trunking company. They verify that what they are picking up is what is on the manifest. They are the early warning system for vehicle maintenance. They deal with the government and others at weighing stations. When sleeping in the cab, they act as security for the load. If the vehicle breaks down, they set up road flares and contact authorities. If the vehicle doesn’t handle correctly, the driver has to stop and analyze what’s wrong – blown tire, shifting load, whatever.

In addition, many truckers are sole proprietors who own their own trucks. This means they also do all the bookwork, preventative maintenance, taxes, etc. These people have local knowledge that is not easily transferable. They know the quirks of the routes, they have relationships with customers, they learn how best to navigate through certain areas, they understand how to optimize by splitting loads or arranging for return loads at their destination, etc. They also learn which customers pay promptly, which ones provide their loads in a way that’s easy to get on the truck, which ones generally have their paperwork in order, etc. Loading docks are not all equal. Some are very ad-hoc and require serious judgement to be able to manoever large trucks around them. Never underestimate the importance of local knowledge.

I’ve been working in automation for 20 years. When you see how hard it is to simply digitize a paper process inside a single plant (often a multi-year project), you start to roll your eyes at ivory tower claims of entire industries being totally transformed by automation in a few years. One thing I’ve learned is a fundamentally Hayekian insight: When it comes to large scale activities, nothing about change is easy, and top-down change generally fails. Just figuring out the requirements for computerizing a job is a laborious process full of potential errors. Many automation projects fail because the people at the high levels who plan them simply do not understand the needs of the people who have to live with the results.

Take factory automation. This is the simplest environment to automate, because factories are local, closed environments that can be modified to make things simpler. A lot of the activities that go on in a factory are extremely well defined and repetitive. Factory robots are readily available that can be trained to do just about anything physically a person can do. And yet, many factories have not automated simply because there are little details about how they work that are hard to define and automate, or because they aren’t organized enough in terms of information flow, paperwork, processes, etc. It can take a team of engineers many man years to just figure out exactly what a factory needs to do to make itself ready to be automated. Often that requires changes to the physical plant, digitization of manual processes, Statistical analysis of variance in output to determine where the process is not being defined correctly, etc.

A lot of pundits have a sense that automation is accelerating in replacing jobs. In fact, I predict it will slow down, because we have been picking the low hanging fruit first. That has given us an unrealistic idea of how hard it is to fully automate a job.

Based on this I can still think of some labor-saving, but not labor-eliminating, automation roles in trucking.

  • Convoying, allowing one driver to lead multiple additional automated trucks
  • Reduction in team driving.  Currently Federal rules (e.g. for rest breaks and maximum driving times) have created incentives for teams of two drivers to move priority freight that needs to be moving constantly and not parked while the driver sleeps.  Automation might allow one person plus the automated driver to keep trucks moving continuously and safely.

One thing not mentioned by Mr. Hanson is the role of regulation.  Safe automated trucks will likely exist LONG before Federal regulatory changes will occur to allow them much use.  This is not just because there is some delay with regulators getting comfortable with the safety aspects, but because affected groups with political pull who wish to keep the status quo will use safety concerns, real or imagined, to hold up the regulatory process.

If you think I am being too pessimistic, here is a story.  The typical steam engine of the 1930′s needed a driver and a fireman — the latter’s job was to make sure the furnace was correctly fueled and operating well.  When diesel locomotives came along, one benefit among many was that the fireman was no longer needed.  Seeing this on the horizon, the fireman’s union was ready to dig in their heals.  They actually, boldly, took the position NOT that a diesel locomotive needed a fireman, but that it should be required to have 2 firemen!  This was partially a subject for union negotiation, but in the dysfunctional world of railroad labor regulation, it also required some regulatory changes  (as the first industry with large workforces, the government took its first shot at labor regulation in a railroad-specific manner and the result was largely dysfunctional; fortunately for the rest of industry it did a better job with labor regulation later for everyone else).  It took years to totally eliminated fireman from diesel engines.  In fact, nearly every railroad labor saving technology like this (e.g. automatic brakes rather than men on roofs turning break wheels) led to regulatory foot-dagging that allowed the new technology but resisted the reduction in personnel.

 Automation, or Perhaps Not (At Least for a While)  Automation, or Perhaps Not (At Least for a While)  Automation, or Perhaps Not (At Least for a While)

 Automation, or Perhaps Not (At Least for a While)

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