Uber Freight: Mark and Larry’s Excellent Adventure

19 thoughts on “Uber Freight: Mark and Larry’s Excellent Adventure”

  1. I’ve heard Japan resisted automation in their local markets. So as to maintain full (or at least fuller) employment. Is that still true? Their economy doesn’t seem to have suffered despite said deliberate inefficiencies.

    1. Japan is a special case. At the end of WWII the country was devastated and they needed all the labor they could get to rebuild from the rubble. They intentionally constrained internal consumption in favor of a strong export economy. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they were financially strong enough to start loosening up with domestic consumerism.

      Unlike North America and Europe Japan strictly forbids immigration for cultural reasons. (Basically the Japanese are fiercely racist and look down on other Asians. Ask any Korean you might know…) This had the favorable side effect of keeping Japanese employed more than they would have. The government also understands that unemployed people cause trouble so employers were incentivized to keep people on the payroll.

      Now with a rapidly aging and declining population robots are filling the gap.

  2. I am concerned that by my grandchildren’s adulthood machines will be better than humans at virtually everything. What that means, no one can quite imagine.

  3. Everyone that’s paying attention knows this situation – as unavoidable as it is – is also unsustainable. Though this is not a comprehensive list, these are the things that come to mind for me:

    1. The systemic vulnerability you speak of: It all works great until it doesn’t work. Complexity is great until it gets too much for a local group to manage and fix. There is something essential about having the skills necessary to deal with a problem local enough to keep systems from collapsing or even falling down hard temporarily.

    One easy example of this is cashiers being able to do math with pencil in paper if the POS fails. Some would say this is unreasonable while others would argue that knowledge of basic math is an essential human need.

    2. HR drain: I agree with those endorsing the trades as a good alternative. And making the truck driver extinct may with long hindsight be a good thing. But the wise thing to do would be to stop and ask career questions: What would you do if you couldn’t drive a truck? Rushing forward with technology with no concern over where the humans will end up is never the best choice. While it does always necessitate stopping the move forward, it should be one of the prep steps of the project plan.

    3. Humanless Society: Small things give me pause. Is eliminating human interaction from the bank transaction and the grocery store sale really a better and advanced idea? There are now places where you can go pay for a hug or a snuggle. While some write these off as actually just sexual desire, I see it and other similar services as a symptom of this withdrawal of the human element from our day-to-day lives. The needs for human touch and interaction are basic and non-negotiable. They will be met one way or another.

    While I totally agree that society can adapt, we may notice some very odd behaviors and situations which will seem inexplicable until we realize they are simply the human race’s ways of righting itself.

  4. The labor efficiency here seems pretty minor. The long haul section would be capacity limited by number of humans driving. I.e. “larry” could only do 4 hour segments to match up with “mark”, otherwise, you’ll just have a bunch of idle larry’s. Plus it doubles the number of junction points, right?

    1. Baby steps. Containerization took decades. Mark and Larry are the beta testers to prove the concept. And there’s the tricky business of legality. Arizona is agressively courting autonomous technology. California is making it illegal – for now. Hence the transfer on the border. Arizona and Nevada are already home to significant distribution centers for products destined for California due to tax policies and regulatory parameters. Logistics optimization systems will make sure there is no waste in the system so “Larry and Mark” will never just hang out – at least not on the company’s dime. But that’s another conversation…

  5. It seems ridiculous to me that trucks are still doing long haul shipments, and even more ridiculous that most automation schemes seem to be focused on automating highway driving. It’s perfectly acceptable and advantageous to put semi trailers on rail flatcars and use trains to move trailers long distances. Companies like JB Hunt and UPS figured this out a long time ago, and their driver forces are largely oriented toward short-haul, last mile type of trips. Might I add that the freight railroads are privately funded…

    1. There are lots of moving parts here. Rail is spectacularly efficient at moving large volumes at long cost with minimum fuel over long distances between two concentrated points. But it’s not great at short trips within our existing suburban metroplex landscapes.

      Long haul freight rail in the most critical regions in the US (Chicago and LA in particular) has experienced prolonged and repeated bottlenecks. Shipping companies concerned that their products will get stuck in a rail logjam want multiple options to work around the congestion.

      The threat of sea ports shutting down as the result of strikes (as has happened on the west coast) has lead many shippers to relocate distribution centers to places that are equidistant to multiple ports (Houston, Savannah, and Newark) instead of the mega ports of LA and Long Beach. Kentucky is a sweet spot – and it just happens to have low labor costs and a lot more cheap space than California or Chicagoland. That kind of flexible dispersed logistics requires trucks, not trains.

      We could solve these problems with a unified national infrastructure policy, but that would require coordination and leadership that doesn’t currently exist.

  6. So when a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil…

    Those mid-life truckers could probably find good gigs in HVAC systems maintenance and repair, plumbing/pipefitting, electrical work, or welding after a few months to a year of retraining…while they work. The Millennials haven’t yet figured out that those are good jobs.

    As long as there are people in buildings, those skills will be needed. Like nursing.

    1. My eight year old washer quit the other day. I called Sears where I bought it, they said someone could come out in two weeks. A local store services only what they sell as they have only one tech on staff. Another company put me on terminal hold. I ‘finally’ called another local store that sells used reconditioned appliances. Voila, two days later guy came, fixed it in 1/2 hr (broken belt) and I’m satisfied. We need more techies who can do stuff, not only washers, but fridges, microwaves and other appliances.

  7. As much as I love the resourcefulness of humans my hopefulness lies with being even more clever in taking care of each other. The cascade has begun. Without better education systems, without more thoughtful training for work of the future, we are creating a cascade of cultural failure. We are already not understanding the sort of poverty that we are currently ignoring because we have failed to provide resources (education, job training, income, neighborhoods) and if we fail to embrace the coming further reduction in low-skill jobs there will levels of poverty to sever to ignore.

  8. So it seems no one seems to care that we are basically baking in huge dependencies on a working GPS system into our society? And that it’s probably not that hard to disable the GPS system for a determined nation state? And that China for one has pointedly demonstrated that they can shoot down satellites? (and I’m sure a lot of other countries could do it if they cared, not picking on China)

    1. Physically taking down satellites is hard and expensive – and would be an overt act of war. The Chinese are unlikely to do such a thing. Disabling the computer systems that connect satellites and equipment on the ground is relatively cheap and easy and can be done through multiple opaque intermediaries. For example, the US/Israel have already used Stuxnet malicious software to disable Iran’s uranium refining program. North Korea hacked Sony’s computers. All that’s required is a room full of smart geeks and a grudge.

      1. “Hard and expensive,” but there’s lots and lots of money around. A little U.S. company is being censured by the FCC for launching an unapproved satellite, and of course one guy has raised enough money to do a credible Mars shot.
        One threat, which is still science fiction for now, is an accidental collision in space, where the debris hits a few other satellites, and so on in a chain-reaction multi-satellite pileup. Geosynchronous orbits virtually run on a one-lane road in space.

        1. I stand by my original statement. It’s so much easier to disable complex systems with a bit of malicious code than launch missiles. But I agree that accidents in geosynchronous space are a real threat to telecom systems.

      2. Not just an act of war. If it triggers Kessler syndrome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kessler_syndrome), it could be argued that anyone who takes such an action is an enemy of mankind, along with pirates and slavers.

        However, the person who takes such an action won’t necessarily have to be a government. Fortunately, the GPS satellites are pretty far out, but the capabilities of hobbyists grows every day. How long until some cowboy rocketman wrecks orbit for everyone? Before or after a biopunk wipes out 90% of the population…?

  9. I could see a future of autonomous Tesla Semis roaming the nation. Will that mean peak oil becomes peak demand? As for the jobs part, yes I thinked skilled blue collar is going to be hot in the near future. It’s hot already, actually.

    The big variable is globalization itself. Will it continue to make economic sense to ship crap (mostly) across the vast Pacific and then long haul to Targets across the nation? Whilst the 90% is effectively working at said Target? A bizarre world we’ve created. Unintended consequences, here we come.

    1. Electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles have two different niche applications. If you’re sending 40,000 pounds of freight over the Rockies you want a diesel engine that drives itself. If you’re doing a 30 mile delivery across a metro area on city streets with tricky loading docks the electric truck with a human makes more sense.

      Globalization will eventually level off as most countries converge and reach rough economic parity. China’s rapidly rising labor costs now make it less attractive as “The” global low cost producer. At the same time surplus labor in mature markets like Europe and North America make re-shoring manufacturing to Wisconsin or the British Midlands more attractive. But these won’t be 1950s style factory jobs.

      As for Peak Oil, I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem isn’t supply per se. There’s still huge mounts of oil, coal, and natural gas out there. But the quality of the remaining resources are lower and more dispersed in smaller pockets in more difficult to access spots. We’re gradually going to hit diminishing returns on marginal investment as ever more complex systems attempt to pull crappier bits of stuff out of the ground and refine them into useable products. And then there’s geopolitics. Venezuela self destructed politically. Nigeria or Saudi could go the same way at any moment. War in the Middle East could take 25% of the world’s oil supply off the market overnight. Big fun.

  10. Never took a class in economics so I used to say, “Everything I know I learned from the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal.” Now I just read Granola Shotgun. Hadn’t thought about the impact of autonomous vehicles on Waffle House.

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