Do you remember when Game of Thrones was still airing, how sometimes there'd be a multiple-episode arc about subtle political machinations being reversed and then counter-reversed only to later learn that the counter-reversal was actually part of the original plan and you wanted to scream "Oh my god! There are ice demons like ten miles away, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING?" Well, that's how I feel about an issue that is going to fundamentally reshape American society, but instead of cold dead guys, it's robot cars.
While this column isn't about the threat posed by Transformers, it is about a robot apocalypse that's going to ravage the Midwest. I know, I know, the last thing you want to hear about right now is another imminent doomsday -- aren't global warming and COVID-19 and murder hornets and measles and the ever-present specter of thermonuclear war and the possibility of hyper-intelligent toilet lampreys enough?
Well, it's likely you haven't heard too much about this particular apocalypse because it's not a sexy blood-and-guts kind. Instead of armies of Terminators hunting down handfuls of survivors for their sweet sweet spinal fluid, it'll look like this:
Driverless semis. Something we all know is coming but nobody talks about, like the upcoming global crisis of climate refugees or whatever DC's next movie is. Now, before I go any further, let me address something: statistically, if you're reading this, you live in a major metropolitan city, most likely on a coast. You probably think owning large predatory cats is something relegated to a handful of weirdos in Tiger King and not just part of everyday life in the weird semi-urban, semi-rural hinterlands that make up, by area, most of the country's living area. You've probably never met a trucker. When you think "trucker," you probably think of a tubby guy listening to "Convoy" on repeat while hauling MAGA hats from Big Bill's Racism Barn to a county fair where the hats will be rolled in suet and deep-fried to perfection.
And, yeah, sure, there is that element. But live in the Midwest long enough and you'll meet a LOT of truckers, and the vast majority of them are good people who just want a job where they don't have to talk to people and nobody to judge them when they poop in a Wendy's bag. There are so many truckers, in fact, that it makes stereotypes kind of useless -- but I'm still going to employ them for jokes because comedy is hard. Check out this map from NPR showing the most common jobs in every state as of 2014:
Some folks have taken issue with how NPR aggregated this data, but it doesn't change the fact that there are between two and three million truckers in America (and many more jobs that will be adversely affected by increasing automation of the shipping industry). And believe me when I say that there will come a day, probably sooner than we all expect, when virtually every single one of those truckers becomes obsolete.
It's something we don't like to think about, like how much child blood was required to bring the Pillsbury Dough-Golem to unholy, buttery life. But the spread of driverless trucks is also inevitable, because a self-driving truck doesn't need to sleep. It doesn't make mistakes. It doesn't throw bottles of piss out the window whenever it passes a Little League baseball game. It doesn't try to unionize. It doesn't stop once every few nights to decapitate a lot lizard in a combination Denny's/truck stop (well, actually, I'm withholding judgment on AI's stance on decapitation until it's widespread).
And widespread it will be: a study done by UC Berkeley predicts fully autonomous long-haul trucks will be common by 2024. Just last year, an experimental driverless truck delivered a load of precious, precious butter from California to Pennsylvania without an issue -- if you don't count children on trips being disappointed as they realize they're making the "honk your horn, Mr. Trucker" gesture in vain as an issue. (If you don't know what the hell I'm talking about, city slicker, I'd bet money you've gone your entire life without ever having touched a shovel.)
Look, driverless trucks are as inevitable as Disney trying to get the rights to do soulless live-action remakes of Studio Ghibli classics as soon as Hayao Miyazaki dies. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we both know it's true. In fact, I think we're likelier to see self-driving semis before we see a mo-capped Josh Gad as No-Face singing a song Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote about the value of believing in yourself. The first company that finds a way to make driverless trucks reliable and cheap is looking at a market that's going to make them very, very rich. And the day that it becomes even one cent cheaper to build a new fleet of driverless trucks than to pay truckers, those jobs are going to disappear more or less overnight. And sure, that might create new jobs, but they're jobs that, according to that UC Berkeley study, will have "lower wages and poor working conditions," like "guy who washes the driverless trucks" or "guy who rides on top of the trucks and shoots the bandits who used to be the middle class with a harpoon gun when they try to rob the trucks."
So there'll be a huge systemic shock when we find a significant portion of the economy unemployed -- but that's not actually the point I want to make. That's going to be bad, but it's not the thing that makes me ... uh ... sorry, I'm a German man from the Midwest who was raised Catholic, so I have a hard time expressing my feelings. What's the one called where it feels like it's raining, but inside? The opposite of a boner? I think that one's called "sad." Yeah, the mass unemployment isn't entirely what makes me sad here. To add a little context, I want to tell you a little story about my hometown of Gary, Indiana.
If you've heard of Gary, it's probably either as the former murder capital of the country or from The Music Man. So how did Gary, which used to be a boomtown, go from this:
The easy answer is that the city's primary industry -- namely, steel production -- collapsed after WWII. Steel production in other countries became cheaper and the mills laid off hundreds of thousands of people. Taking out the mills is like removing the bottom block in a Jenga tower with a cannon: total system collapse. If you're from a big city you might not see what this has to do with truckers. Maybe you've seen photos of Breezewood, Pennsylvania making the rounds on the internet:
Maybe you look at this picture and see a modern American hellscape. Maybe you see a photo that's one color-correction away from being a Modest Mouse album cover. Maybe you see a town at the mercy of roving mobility scooter gangs. Maybe you see what you think the entire country is between LA and New York, which is completely unfair because we also have Portillo's, the restaurant where you can get an entire goddamn slice of cake in your milkshake, which is how we commit suicide in the Heartland.
But I look at this picture and I see Lake Station, Indiana. I see any of the hundreds, maybe thousands of towns that pretty much exist to serve long-haul truckers who need to get gas, eat something approaching food, crush up their Adderall in peace, and take a shower to wash off all the accumulated road grease. Yes, truck stops have showers. (If you've ever seen a suspiciously wet person at a Denny's, it's either because they took a shower there or because after they just finished burying the body and needed to wash off the clown makeup.)
When trucking goes the way of Town Swimsuit Measurer and Cradle Lead Inserter, it's taking these towns with it. Because it's not just actual long-haul trucking jobs that will disappear; it's the entire ecosystem that supports them. The entire gas station crackpipe industry will crumble like a forgotten cookie at the bottom of a backpack. The Rust Belt will get a whole lot rustier. I think we'll see a domino effect that will end with rural areas becoming more rural as more people move to one of the five cities in the United States that actually has jobs (New York, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, and wherever they make Bird scooters).
If you think I'm exaggerating for clicks, I'm not -- if I'm wrong it's not because I'm fear-mongering, it's actually because I'm dumb. But there is precedent to this: in 1956, Eisenhower finished his breakfast of 20% of a cow and a pack of vitamin-rich cigarettes, took a break from predicting the future, and signed the Interstate Highway Act. This is what created our system of interconnected highways, shifting the most common cause of death on a cross country trip from "died of dysentery when the wagon broke" to "Combos poisoning." Once the highways were built, towns that were once thriving hubs "withered and died" simply because the interstate didn't go through them. They relied on travelers that used to come through on the old roads -- and once those were obsolete, the towns' only industry became Giant-Plaster-Model-of-an-Everyday-Object-Having.
When the Interstate Highway Act was passed, hundreds of towns died in obscurity -- but it made other towns relatively prosperous simply by being near off-ramps or having particularly discreet rest stop patrons. When driverless semis become the norm, I don't see any winners besides the nine guys at the top who every year consolidate a little more of the worker's profits so they can go from having infinity money to infinity money + X. Meanwhile, the center of the country becomes hollow and falls away -- thousands of Gary, Indianas, writ in miniature, all slowly suffocating in the same gilded noose.
But hey! Robot trucks! Still kinda cool?
Top Image: Mike Mareen/Shutterstock