9. Rod – US Pacific Coast

United States – Oregon

Pacific Coast Highway, Oswald State Park

Rod Jenson had been a trucker since his early twenties, having seen Duel and Convoy as a teenager at his local cinema theatre, and he still remembered the old days fondly. When he joined his local truck company, he’d been seduced by the myth that the long-haul truck driver was a natural evolution of the cowboy who roamed the prairies.

They’d had deep orange red sunsets at crumbling desert truck stops that had been havens for tall tales, and even the odd wild bawdy party in the back of an empty long-haul trailer. Trucker was still the most common job in many States, and someone had once said there were two million in the US alone. It was a lonely but respected job too. Rod had found that when a stranger asked in a bar what you did, if you said that you were a trucker you at least got a nod of appreciation for helping to keep the nation ticking over each day.

Times had changed though, and new digital tachographs had recently been introduced in all US trucks, replacing the paper logs many truckers used to fill in. Bottom line, the chances of a quick snooze, or some other type of the more clandestine or fun physical leisure activity he remembered from the eighties, were now consigned to history. Friends that had gone over to work in Europe had told him not to be too concerned over the change, as they’d had tachographs to monitor driver time in cabs for over thirty years. In reality the tacho didn’t really mean that much, as trucking was already one of the most regulated industries in the US. What it would do, though, was stop unscrupulous truck operators making their drivers working crazy long hours.

He had always been in favour of this ‘spy in the cab’, as some of his more militant trucking friends had called the new tacho. His thoughts turned to Ed, his best buddy who had died in the dead of night in Oregon one snowy January, dozing off at the wheel after over twenty hours on the road. He’d hit the kerb and his truck had slid sideways on black ice and keeled over, piling his rig into a gully at fifty miles an hour and crushing the cab, with Ed inside it. He’d insisted on being the person to tell Ed’s wife, and he remembered with a chill the look of stunned pain on her face, before she collapsed in his arms.

Over in California he had friends who were jealous of his job. They told tales of personal woe, with warehouse worker unemployment rising fast, and where the only human beings left in their companies were truck drivers. Most of the modern warehouses had the trucks goods arrived in loaded, unloaded and stored by machines. All that was left was a few people on minimum wage with a load of screens. They just watched the machines do the work of what, in the past, would have been dozens of warehouse staff milling around. Unemployment had settled down a bit over there now but, despite all those machines, you still had a truckers’ lounge, with twenty guys standing around getting paid proper wages.

What his mates would think of the driverless truck trial he was doing now made him shudder. Trucker jobs were bound to go if this worked as they planned. Over the last few years the big West Coast tech companies had joined forces with the major truck manufacturers. Their vision was one of a future in which many truckers would get replaced, or at the very least downgraded to co-pilots. They wanted to automate the many trucks that did long journeys across the US, using similar systems that people were used to with autopilots on planes. Some of the trucks planned to be trialled were even all electric, and one company had already done a hundred miles with a big rig with no driver at all.

Today was a big transport technology milestone, his bosses had told him. More importantly though, it was a crucial way of getting back a share of goods transport from the railroads. In just the one month since the truck tachograph laws came in, railroad companies had already started to get more contracts from big retailers to shift their good over long distances. Reducing truck driver hours had meant less legal hours in the cab on the road. In turn this had cut the company’s productivity on the road by ten percent, meaning the same increase in cost had needed to be levied on the businesses they supplied, just to maintain their profits.

It had taken some time, but Rod had eventually been persuaded that you couldn’t stand in the way of driverless truck progress, with this move set to cut the company’s overheads dramatically. They’d told him that California, Florida, Michigan and Utah had already passed laws allowing trucks to drive autonomously in what they called platoons, where two or more big rigs could drive together and synchronise their movements.

The powerful Teamsters union had been understandably worried. With the new tachos coming in, truckers were now already banned from driving more than eleven hours a day without an eight-hour break. This was the same for his own convoy truck, but two driverless trucks behind meant two less drivers. So the Teamsters had pushed Congress to slow legislation for other states wanting looking to bring in autonomous trucks, but this move was just a speed bump in progress at best. Ed realised the smart money was on fully operational self-driving trucks to start replacing jobs by the end of the year, and maybe even commonplace before he retired in five or six years’ time.

All of his mates knew a half of the company’s costs were its drivers, so if there was a chance that this way forward would secure the remaining driver’s livelihoods for the future, he was cautiously for it. But jobs would still go, he knew that. Rod accepted it was selfish, but why not let the lost jobs be other people, not him. He had his wife and three kids to think of.

Despite his thirty five years of big rig experience, Rod had honestly been surprised when he had been selected for the company’s trial of these first driverless trucks. Even though they had briefed him on what it might involve just before Christmas, he hadn’t understood even a small part of how the technology worked. He had always assumed that it would have been some young buck, who loved cell phones, social media and all that modern technology guff, that would have been the first in line to make this historic journey. Like many of his generation Rod had little clue about automation technology and struggled even to work a pocket calculator. All he knew was that the two rigs behind him had no driver, and looking behind him in his mirror it was somewhat scary to see a dark cab with an empty driver’s seat.

The two forty ton trucks following his had the latest tech installed that would track behind the lead truck he was controlling, all to within about twelve feet of the back of his unit, depending on the speed he was doing. His convoy was supervised by a powerful computer in both of the following trucks, with the controls and engine managed by servos connected to the front wheels and airbrakes. Each of the ‘servant’ trucks behind his lead truck apparently had its exact location controlled by global positioning, from some sort of GPS satellite system gizmo in each cab.

When Rod had first tried the truck combo out in the yard, he’d struggled working out what to call it and had come up with the name Triple Truck in his feedback sessions to management. He’d heard later that their marketing department had almost wet themselves with the moniker Triple Truck and the name had stuck, with people taking in conversations about the TT, for short.

He had a detailed manual of TT operating guidelines next to him that he’d had to memorise, just in case something didn’t go according to plan on the two day trip. He also had a laminated guide card with emergency instructions and hotline contact number taped to the cab door, just in case.

He’d seen the drone video of the original yard trials they’d done the previous year to try out this revolutionary new technology, and had been quietly impressed. From the air it just looked like three truckers in some sort of carefully synchronised delivery line. After he signed his contract with the new driverless truck division of his transport company, they had been at pains to tell him to remember he was now responsible for not just one but three rigs, even though he was only going to be driving the lead one.

As he drove carefully at the proscribed forty miles an hour down the Pacific Coastal Highway, or PCH as it was colloquially known, Rod knew he was fully in charge of all three trucks. They had reminded him, just before he got in the cold cab that morning, that this was about a million dollars’ worth of special kit. And that was with all the trailers empty too.

They had already successfully trialled the TT down the fast I-5, where the route was flatter and easier. This third trial run would test out TT over more difficult and what they’d call ‘regional’ terrain, using Highway 101, over a thousand miles from Washington State through Oregon to California. He loved this part of the US, which had everything you could ask for as the backdrop to a classic road trip. It included big mountain rises, passes and switchbacks, where you had to use all of your experience with his truck’s eighteen gears, switching seamlessly between high and low ranges when things got steep. He knew the I-5 well, but it was years since he’d gone on the 101. He had forgotten the thrill of the winding roads, coastal cliffs and huge, long sandy beaches. Part of the reason they’d chosen the north to south route was that they had plenty of pull-in places, even for his triple convoy. Still, it was mid-winter and he knew he’d have to keep his wits about him on the first ten hour stage, to make sure the similar but automated gear change systems in the two following trailers could cope.

In the early days his wife Janine had asked him how on earth he managed to handle his rig’s sixteen forward and two reverse gears. All she had on her small car in the drive was a four speed auto, and she just couldn’t figure out how the gear system on the truck worked. She didn’t want to climb into his truck so over a cold beer on the swing-seat on the porch, one evening he took her through the truck’s gear sequences. They had to pretend the swing seat was a truck driver in his cab. He’d drawn gear numbers on a tennis ball, poked a hole in it and fixed it onto a long stick. The stick ‘shifter’ was planted in a bucket of sand a foot in front of the seat. Between them was an old light switch that he said he would use to show how to switch between the high and low gear ranges. On the floor was an old tin food tray he was using as the truck clutch pedal.

Rod had explained that the first four gears were just like in a car with a stick shift. Stamp on the clutch tray, ‘clank’, move into first top left. Check the revs and once they reached two thousand, clank, pull the stick back for second gear. More revs again, clank, across and up right for third, clank, then back again for fourth. In his real truck the shift knob had two switches controlling air-actuated gears. There was a range switch, set onto low for gears one to four, and a high and low splitter switch, used to toggle between the low and high setting for each gear. He used his index finger on the seat light switch to represent the range switch, showing how he would flip between high and low ratios at each gear position.

After ten minutes, during which Janine had watched his swift hand movements intently, she then nodded in understanding and supped back her beer. They then swapped places on the swing seat, Rod taking the opportunity to pull her next to him and give her a quick peck on the cheek. Janine smiled slyly and cracked her knuckles. She soon showed she’d got all of the basics of how it worked, moving the stick gear shifter around in the sand, and pressing the light switch to move between low and high ranges. Rod shouted out the imaginary terrain they were on to see how she’d react. Then, another beer later Rod suggested they should take move things up a gear and take their swing seat truck up and down a twisty mountain pass. With Janine generating loud revving noises, stamping down hard on what was now a much dented tin tray, and rapidly moving the stick shift in increasingly bigger motions that made the seat move backwards, after five minutes they had both dissolved into fits of laughter. Rod had finally called a halt to the driving lesson, pronouncing Janine a fully-fledged trucker.

She still had the mock certificate he’d made for her in his den the following weekend, set in a silver frame in pride of place in her own workroom.