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Lane Departures: Those self-driving truck stories aren’t automatic anymore

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A Starsky Robotics truck wends its way down a Florida highway.

What makes news “news”?

That’s a question that journalists are first asked in college, with the presumption that they will keep asking themselves that same question throughout their careers.

We were asking ourselves that question a few weeks ago, when we came across a new story that seemed awfully familiar. Maybe you saw it somewhere.  A company called Kodiak Robotics, a relatively recent entry in the self-driving truck technology race, had begun using its trucks to make regular, semi-autonomous deliveries between Dallas and Houston.

The story described the runs, clarified just how autonomous their trucks really are — where and how much humans stand guard, and how much they take over when it comes to the tricky parts — and then the story gave the reader a rundown of the company’s brief but meteoric history.

My initial reaction when I read about this milestone achievement was, “Hmm, you don’t say.”

Back in journalism school, I was taught that one of the ways to decide if news was news was to consider that the root word of “news” is “new.” First, is it new in terms of being recent? Second, is it new in terms of being something distinctive? As a news organization, you want to avoid being redundant, being repetitive, to keep telling the same kinds of stories about same things in the same way, over and over and over again, you know what I mean?

That’s the feeling I got with the Kodiak story, like I’d read this story before. That’s because I pretty much had. Back in May, there was a story about a company called TuSimple that had made self-driving mail runs between Phoenix and Dallas. Then in June we had a story about a company called Starsky Robotics, how they drove a truck essentially by remote control for nearly 10 miles on a highway in Florida, breaking their personal best, set last year when the story was about how they drove a truck for about 7 miles on a Florida highway.

By sheer repetition, the Kodiak story had a “so what else is new?” feel. Sure, self-driving technology is a fascinating topic, one that will undoubtedly have a profound impact on the industry someday, but do we need to run a story every time one of these companies has what it wants us to consider a breakthrough?

It reminds me of when astronomers started finding exoplanets — planets orbiting stars outside our solar system. The first time it happened, it was a huge deal, without question. And then when they found a few more, that was a big deal, too, because it indicated that the galaxy is crawling with exoplanets.

But then they kept finding them. That first exoplanet was confirmed in 1992. Today, they’ve found more than 4,100 exoplanets. It’s fun, every once in a while, to get an update on the running total, and now and then they find one that’s particularly unusual. But let’s face it, at this point, most of us are waiting now for the day astronomers can say they pointed their telescope at one of these planets and saw someone waving back.

I think we’ve reached a similar point with autonomous truck technology. For a few years, the industry had been inundated with proclamations from companies large and small, shouting over one another that they were somewhere between 15 years and 10 minutes away from perfecting autonomous vehicle technology.

Then in 2016, a small company called Otto, which by that point has been sucked up by Uber, ran a truckload of beer “autonomously” for 120 miles in Colorado. Reporters, wanting to demonstrate their thoroughness, dutifully noted that it was exactly 51,744 cans of Budweiser.

The story captured America’s attention because it represented the first commercial use of automated truck technology — and because it involved beer. Since then, Otto is defunct and Uber is out of the self-driving truck race, but they established the template for autonomous truck testing stories.

Ever since then, we’ve gotten occasional stories about one company or another that was about to do some kind of road testing out on real roads. That, of course, is enough to get the public’s attention.

The details may vary, but the stories all run pretty much the same. First, the experimental run, publicized just before or just after it occurs, or both, is presented like it’s the boldest undertaking since the Apollo program. A closer read usually indicates that while it may represent a small step for mankind, it is a giant leap for that particular company.

We also get the obligatory history of the company. They’re always presented like modern-day Horatio Alger tales, the little company that could, that pulled itself by its own bootstraps – and raised $50 million in investment capital. These on-road breakthroughs always seem to come fairly soon thereafter.

They still like to refer to themselves as “startups,” because it makes it sound like it’s two guys working out of their garage. I know the term is fairly new, but I think we need to set some rules, like, if you’ve been around five years, have facilities in three states and your company’s value is in the eight-figure range or above, you are no longer a startup, you’re just an “is.”

For some of these companies, publicity seems to be its own reward, or maybe they’re hoping to drum up more of that sweet, sweet investment capital.

This summer, TuSimple, the company made the postal runs in May, seems to have fallen in love with the limelight. After calling attention to their postal endeavor, they announced that the company had embarked in a partnership with a community college to create an “Autonomous Vehicle Driver and Operations Specialist” program, a five-course curriculum open to Class A CDL holders, ostensibly to prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow. The press releases touted it as being a one-of-a-kind program, which I suspect is a distinction it may hold for quite some time.

Then, a few weeks later, TuSimple was back in our email boxes with the announcement that UPS had made a small investment in the company and was working with TuSimple on studying the viability of autonomous trucking.

Sounds like a smart idea, but why did TuSimple think we all needed to hear about it? When a company sends out a press release, it’s always because its trying to sell something, even if that something is the brand itself.

Seeing it from their side, it may be sound strategy. But as the stories of autonomous testing come more frequently, the bar is set higher. Sorry, “startups,” you’re a victim of your own success. Simply getting a vehicle on the road isn’t the headline-grabber it used to be.

Now, once we can wave at an autonomous truck and it blows its horn back, then we’ll have something.

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The Nation

Lane Departures: Why would California lawmakers saddle trucking with the ABC test?

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Well, he said he’d do it.

If you look elsewhere on this website, you’ll see a story I did about a week ago about AB5, a bill passed by the California Senate on September 10 into the waiting arms of Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had long telegraphed he was looking forward to signing it.

Yesterday, he did it. And come the new year, trucking is going to have to live with it.

AB5 — the full name is the “Employees and Independent Contractors” bill — is ostensibly intended to prevent employers from exploiting workers and skirting expenses by relying on “independent contractors” to make their businesses run instead of hiring full-fledged employees, who come with all kinds of nasty baggage like guaranteed minimum wages, overtime and payroll taxes, mandatory breaks, insurance and other horrific profit reducers.

The bill got off the ground in the wake of a court case last year in which a delivery company called Dynamex was determined to have improperly reclassified its workers as independent contractors in order to save money.  In making the decision, the court applied what is known as the ABC test, which presumes all workers should be classified as employees unless they meet three criteria.

Like the court case, the bill, which will codify the ABC test across the state, seems to have been at least in spirit aimed at companies like Dynamex that are part of that there so-called “gig economy” all the young folks are so hopped up about. Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft are almost always mentioned as Public Enemies 1A and 1B of supposed independent contractor charlatans.

The problem with AB5, its critics say, is it proposes to perform an appendectomy with a chainsaw, ripping into industries that have long-established business models that extensively use independent contractors to the satisfaction of all involved.

A great big example would be trucking, because it appears the ABC test would prevent carriers from contracting with owner-operators or smaller fleets in California. I’ll let you imagine the consequences if that’s true.

If you’ve read the article, or your planning to read the article, I’d like to apologize in advance because as I’ve been learning about this AB5 business, I have some lingering questions that I could not answer. I have calls out to a couple of experts on the legal and logistical nuances. Unfortunately, experts don’t observe journalistic deadlines.

But then, I figured, this story is going to be around a while, so we can keep building on what we know. I may have answers to some of these questions by the time you read this. Or maybe you will be able to provide some of the answers. I mean, you don’t need to have a title or a degree or be part of a think tank to know a thing or two.

My first question is this: They didn’t pull this ABC test out of thin air. A majority of states already use the test in some manner on matters of job status. California’s application of ABC is based on Massachusetts’ broad, strict use of the test. So, hasn’t trucking had to contend with this standard there and in in other states already? I haven’t heard reports of empty store shelves in Massachusetts. Is there some simple workaround already in existence just waiting for cooler heads to prevail?

Second, from what I gather, ABC has had its critics for as long as it’s existed. Is it just the sheer size of California’s economy that makes this case so important or somehow different?

I’m going to go way out on a limb and say “probably.” Last year, California’s economy outgrew that of Great Britain. If it were an independent country, California would have the fifth-largest economy in the world. And what happens in California rarely stays in California. The state has a major influence on the rest of the nation.

California’s economy is closing in on $3 trillion a year. Real estate, finance, the entertainment industry and that nest of tech behemoths in Silicon Valley are responsible for big chunks of that.

And let’s not forget agriculture. California ranches and farms reaped $50 billion in receipts in 2017. That’s a lot of food, a lot of truckloads.

California also has some of the nation’s largest seaports. The Port of Long Beach alone sees about $200 billion in cargo a year, with 11,000 truckloads leaving the port each day. And most of what doesn’t go by truck from there eventually winds up on a truck somewhere inland.

Add it all up, and trucking is a huge player in the California economic machine. Why would lawmakers want to strip its gears with this law? Some lawmakers are even on record saying they are worried about what this could do to the industry. Then why are they doing it?

The bill’s sponsor, Democrat Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, is not some gung-ho rookie lawmaker. She’s in her third term, and she already has made a national name for herself as a champion of the working class with several pieces of legislation she has supported.

AB5 could fit into that collection quite nicely. But it isn’t a trophy she needs in a hurry. She won her last two reelection campaigns by about a 3-1 margin.

And she’s also been around enough that she surely understands that despite its best intentions, the broad-stroke, one-size-fits-all approach AB5 takes will do more harm than good to many industries, including trucking.

In fact, she’s as much as said so. Gonzalez has already indicated that once the bill becomes law, she’d be open to making amendments and granting exemptions.

So why wait? The bill already grants exemptions to real estate, to doctors and dentists. Even newspaper delivery people got a last-minute, one-year exemption.

The California Trucking Association and the Western States Trucking Association pushed for an exemption. Dozens of truck drivers testified in Sacramento. And you have to think state legislators are at least vaguely aware of what goes on in their own districts.

So, they could grasp the importance of the guy who throws a newspaper in their driveway from a passing car at 4 a.m., but not of the people who deliver, like, everything everywhere all the time?

We all know how long fixing bad legislation can take. Even if they put it on the “fast track,” how much damage will occur before trucking can get an exemption?

I did hear back from one legal expert on the matter. Greg Feary, president and managing partner at Scopelitus, Garvin, Light, Hansen and Feary LLC, said there are a couple of cases in Ninth Circuit Court that could spell relief for the trucking industry. Even so, the legal system can move almost as slowly as the legislative system. He estimates California truckers are going to have to live with AB5 for at least a year.

Questions abound. I’m not looking forward to some of the answers.

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The Nation

Trucking submarine style in Texas

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Texas is getting hit hard with flooding.  This takes it to new levels!


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The Nation

Flooding in Texas – That cab’s gonna be a bit damp!

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KHOU reporter Melissa Correa happened to be on scene and captured this video.  Another motorist grabbed a hammer and rope and saved the drivers life.

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