How GPS Transformed Trucking and Made the Open Road a Lot Less Open

Raymond Fisman and Tim Sullivan
The Wall Street Journal
October 23, 2013

One icon of American popular culture of the 1970s was the long-haul trucker, a free-range rebel in jeans and a Peterbilt hat. Think Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit, hauling a load of Coors beer eastward from Texas. Or Clint Eastwood (and his orangutan Clyde) in Every Which Way but Loose. Or of the truckers in the song "Convoy," tearing up their log sheets, triumphing over Smokey, and rockin' into the night. The reckless spirit of the American West firmly relocated itself from pioneer to cowboy to trucker, at least for a little while.

Fast-forward 30-some years: That untamed maverick is harder to find and the open road has gotten a lot less open. In one short generation, technology, from onboard computers to GPS systems, transformed truckers from free-range rebels to carefully monitored employees whose lives are a lot more like cubicle-bound office workers than the iconoclasts of yore.

In the days before GPS, a driver could, if he chose, take leisurely breaks at truck stops then make up the time by racing at 80 miles an hour down the highway, endangering himself, other motorists and company profits.

So most companies that had to get stuff across the country refused to take on the risk and hired freelance drivers who owned their own rigs. Owner-operators, the logic went, would be responsible because they had to account for the cost of wear and tear on their trucks—and the consequences of reckless endangerment. Or, at the very least, any screw ups would cost the driver, not the company.

But this situation of owner-operators hauling on a contract basis was less-than-ideal for companies. Drivers did little to help out with loading or unloading at the warehouse or taking care of special loads, something the company could ask drivers to do if they were full-time employees.

Along came better monitoring via onboard computers or GPS. This fundamentally changed the playing field. Companies could keep reckless behavior in check and benefit from more coordination and extra help at the warehouse. Companies dumped the freelance operators and once again hired their own. (A 2004 study confirms this.)

Call it a victory for the productivity-enhancing effects of information technology, and a loss of autonomy and independence of the trucker on the open road.

Gary Bojczak, who worked for a construction company in northern New Jersey, discovered the personal effects of these tradeoffs. Earlier this year, Bojczak got his 15 minutes of fame (and a $32,000 fine) for jamming the satellite signals of a newly installed air traffic control system at Newark Airport. Bojczak hadn’t procured his illegal GPS jammer for the purposes of disrupting civil aviation. He merely wanted to keep his boss from tracking his whereabouts at all times.

If workers aren't doing anything wrong, one might argue, they shouldn't mind being tracked.

And the benefits – at least for the company's bottom line – are being felt across many industries, particularly those involving tasks like stuffing envelopes or making telemarketing calls where performance can be monitored real-time. Increasingly sophisticated software is able to detect employee misbehavior even in the absence of direct monitoring by flagging suspicious patterns in, say, the drink and meal transactions of restaurant servers. (One recent study found that such surveillance technology increased restaurant revenues by 7%.)

But, perhaps, like Bajczak, we all feel entitled to our privacy and security, whatever our bosses might think, and the effects on productivity be damned.

And maybe – just maybe – workers might feel more empowered and motivated if left alone to do their jobs a little more often.

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