See all the trucks go by

PHOTO: Pascal Versaci, Flickr CC

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Diesel fuel smells like home.

It reminds me of the idling school bus and the pungent workshop at my family’s junkyard in 1986. Trucks leave deep treads on my memories. Big yellow mining trucks dot the landscape of the Mesabi Iron Range as they have for generations. I played with a Tonka Truck as a kid, watching it grow smaller as I grew older. I bought a new Tonka for my first son when he was still small enough to fit in the bed.

My Grandpa Johnson drove a production truck at the Erie Mine in Hoyt Lakes. He said getting that job was one of the big breaks in his life, nearly doubling his salary as a Keewatin city cop. In 1968, a radiator explosion blew him off the hood of his truck, casting him 35 feet below to a hard road of rough tailings. The injuries would later disable him. He still loved that job, though, better than his time as an electrician after he retrained.

It’s a dark family joke that had my grandfather been thrown off one of the new 240-ton haul trucks used today he’d be dead. We laugh, but it’s entirely true.

My Grandpa Brown also drove a truck, only he piloted tractor-trailers over the road. He talks about the good times when you could make a buck hauling wheat in the early 1970s. Pops also told me about the time in 1960 he came flying over the mountains of western Montana. He lost control at the top of the last foothill and had to throw his new Mack truck out of gear. White knuckled, he rode gravity to the valley below, pegging out his speedometer at 100 mph. Threading a needle, he roared under a covered bridge at the bottom of the mountain with a sonic boom.

The shared experiences of my grandfathers illustrate important aspects of truck driving that remain true today.

First, you can make money. Heather Long of the Washington Post reported on May 28 that a shortage of truck drivers now sends annual salaries above $80,000 a year, double the national average median income. The commercial driving program at Hibbing Community College has no problem placing students in good-paying jobs. With a clean record it’s almost guaranteed.

But the job is dangerous. Truck driving remained the nation’s most deadly job in 2016, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 900 American drivers died that year. It’s also hard on families, whether you’re gone all the time or whether your back’s messed up, often both.

Nevertheless, nearly 18 billion tons of freight moved across America in trucks last year according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. This represents more weight than all other modes of transportation combined. Our nation’s economy would collapse within a few days without trucks.

Driving a truck requires making split-second, life or death decisions, the kind best suited to the cognitive abilities of the human brain. Driving a truck also requires unlimited patience coupled with an odd combination of physical strain and sedentary living. In other words, tasks more efficiently completed by machine.

Not surprisingly, futurists credibly speculate that automation will replace the job of truck driver, perhaps soon.

The Roy Hill Mine in western Australia starts rolling out its new automated haul trucks in July. They’ll run the same number of trucks there, 70 in total, but employ fewer people to operate them remotely. Most workers will be reassigned to other areas, not laid off. Roy Hill will also unveil three new automated drills this year.

Here in Minnesota, mining companies swear they’re not interested in automated trucks. Lourenco Goncalves of Cleveland-Cliffs specifically disavowed the contraptions. For one thing, icy winter conditions here make automated routes trickier to program.

But mines in Sweden use the technology, and do so with support from unions. Why? Because so far the jobs haven’t been lost so much as converted into safer positions that use technology to do the same thing. There, a younger workforce is trained to mine using advanced technology. I wrote before about a 19-year-old running a mine skip through a computer monitor.

Over-the-road trucking presents different challenges. Tests of automated cars produce mixed results. Balancing the predictable behavior of computers with the unpredictable behavior of humans poses early challenges, sometimes with deadly results.

Nevertheless, another pressure weighing on truck drivers is the fact that the industry is changing rapidly — in both technology and regulation.

Indeed, trucks are everywhere. They’re vitally important and we need people to operate them safely. But that safety might soon include automation. You can’t fall off a truck if you’re driving it from the control room.

It often seems that change happenings too suddenly. But our shock isn’t because of the change itself, but because of the way change disrupts our memories and culture. There’s simply no way to imagine my family’s life on the Iron Range without driving trucks. But we must nevertheless consider a future that uses technology instead.

I get it. I don’t like it. But I don’t think that matters much.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, June 17, 2018 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Aaron I would refer you to a very interesting blog post on that talks about automation and vehicle driving. I don’t want to promote another blog on yours but it should be readily find-able for those capable of using a search engine. In short, the number of deaths produced per mile driven for a human driver versus the same for a computer is very similar (based on limited samplig so far), and in fact the human driver is still safer. Even if the computer improves, however, humanity’s appetite for having a computer (or quasi-computer/human-piloted drone truck) kill another driver on the road will essentially not be tolerated, or at least the threshold of tolerance for safety will be so much higher for the computer than a human driven truck that the computer may never ever be able to reach that level of safety. Anyway I see your point and agree there will be some movement towards automation, but there will be a lot of real resistance along the way, namely human intolerance for failure from the computer truck. But I can see it adopted within the context of an ore pit or other locations where interfacing with other human drivers is minimal or non-existent.

    • Thanks for the great comment, Derek. I agree that there is little tolerance for automated driver-involved crashes. We see that in the tone of the news coverage already. (Even when the accidents are caused by human drivers, they are billed as “self-driving car accidents”).

      I’m left wondering a few things. First, when I stop at a stoplight in Grand Rapids or Hibbing and watch people turn left through the intersection, at least half of them are looking at their phones or on their phones. The younger they are, the more likely this occurs. I think the next generation is ready to look at transportation options that don’t include having to pilot the vehicle. And when cars go, trucks will soon follow. That is, unless trucks go first anyway.

      I was talking to my Grandpa Brown about trucking for this column (referenced above). He said the reason he wouldn’t go into it now is the regulations requiring unpaid idle time on long hauls. Ironically, the rules designed to make the job and the roads safe is a frustration for the drivers, who would like to put the hammer down and make Portland by morning. Sleepy truckers who cause accidents receive as much scorn as robots (the Wal Mart truck driver who hit Tracy Morgan comes to mind).

      So I certainly see your point. Maybe this will all happen fast and maybe not at all, but I think there is something in the cultural works that could cause an immediate and total shift of attitudes about this.

      Then we’re back to the problem of the ages. How are we all going to make a living in this rich time of plenty?

  2. That is truly a tough, and ironic, question you pose at the end. I realize it’s a bit rhetorical, but it’s also worth contemplating. I struggle myself to see how there will be enough jobs out there for everyone if we want to maintain the status quo on millennial workforce participation (but do we?). I almost hate to say it (for fear of implying gender-bias, which I’m not) but I think we’ll be seeing a lot more 1-parent working, 1-parent at-home families, as well as co-living arrangements in homes by non-related individuals where the “non-working” roommate is allowed to live there if they perform caretaker duties. The domestic economy of being resourceful and maximizing use of existing goods in the home will be key to this transition. Also, growing a small portion of one’s own food will also see a revival.

    Eventually you will see those with computer/high-tech/healthcare skills being the ones working, and the hands-on, crafty types being the ones staying at home. But this is my own humble opinion and this kind of future is probably 30-50 years away. The transition will be slow and not always pleasant. It’s my hope that society will assign greater value to those who stay home/manage the home, after all, life-insurance companies have actuarial tables on this and the stay-at-home parent in a family of 4 is assigned a value of $50,000/year.

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