A Career Trucker Helps To Steer The Path For Self-Driving Trucks
Jeff Runions, 58, lives in Jacksonville, Fla. When started his trucking career nearly 40 years ago, he had high hopes for what the job might bring. “I wanted the American dream,” he said.
Since then he’s seen the industry from every step of the ladder — as an independent owner-operator, a full-time company driver, a parts manager, and finally a trucking depot manager.
In his latest job developing autonomous trucks, Runions has a front row seat to what many see as the future of the 700 billion dollar trucking industry.
You’ve found yourself in the middle of a heated race between Silicon Valley juggernauts like Uber and Google to get their self-driving trucks out onto the road first.
Runions: Yes, in a way. It’s like when they went to the moon. We’re not going to the moon, but it feels kinda like a new technology’s coming up and how many people would think a semi would be driving itself?
What’s the strategy of your startup?
Runions: My Starsky Robotics is incomparably smaller, of course, than Uber or Google. Instead of trying to beat their competition to develop fully autonomous vehicles, Starsky’s strategy is to develop trucks that are fully autonomous on the highway. And then let remote drivers take the wheel from offices filled with arcade-style consoles, when they hit city streets.
In what phase is the strategy?
Runions: Still in its testing phase: I’m a safety-driver. I sit in the driver’s seat of the truck cabin, ready to take control if there’s trouble. My test rides range from an hour and a half to eight hours-long.
Do you deal with the truck’s sensors and software?
Runions: I come up with some suggestions once in a while and they do work. After all, I have nearly four decades of experience in the trucking industry under my belt. I’m not an engineer like these guys are, but sometimes they listen to me. So, that means I’m part of the team too.
You started your tracking career as an owner-operator.
Runions: It was long ago, in the mid-80s. I purchased a truck and leased out my services on contract to freight companies.
For a while, I enjoyed the freedom that came with having my own truck and the camaraderie I found with fellow truckers I met while crisscrossing the country.
You see, we were like the cowboys of the old days, doing our own thing. We were truckers, and we were young. We were having a good time.
But later you decided to change your lifestyle?
Runions: Years dragged on, life on the road began to lose its luster to me. You just get tired of the same stuff all the time and sleeping in the truck. You’re in this little box all the time. You can’t really go anywhere. The only thing you gotta do is go to sleep and get up and do it again.
You see, regular lack of sleep and a diet based on truck stop junk food made me feel the trucker lifestyle was unhealthy to me. And besides, the hectic schedule took a toll on my family life.
You sold your truck and took a job with a trucking company.
Runions: Yes. After fuel prices surged in the early 2000s, I saw that going it alone didn’t make financial sense for me anymore. After more than 20 years of contracting myself out, I sold my truck and took a job with a commercial trucking company.
Did you enjoy working there?
Runions: Frankly speaking, not. Very soon I found that the new gig had its own downsides.
A normal driver that works for a company, they gotta stay out three weeks at a time, and they give them two days off when they get home. Soon as they get home, after their two days, they gotta go right back out for 21 more days. That ain’t much of a life. Then you’re staying in that box again.
You eventually worked your way up to management. Did you enjoy it?
Runions: No, I didn’t. Despite the position’s better pay, I found its hours and stress were even worse.
I was always in there from 3 o’ clock in the morning to 3 o’ clock in the afternoon. I was worn out, so I decided to try something that was different. And you can’t get more different than this.
How did you find the job you’re doing now?
Runions: Once I came across an online ad for a technology company. It was in search of experienced truck drivers. At first, I was unsure about getting behind the wheel of a self-driving truck, but I’ve come to enjoy the work and its hours. I’m home when I need to be. I’m a happy person now.
Some people doubt the safety of autonomous vehicles.
Runions: I know it. People are scared of this technology because they don’t understand exactly what’s going on with it. That’s why I find my new job meaningful. I feel like I’m helping make this truck right. And we want to make sure that it’s safe as it can be being on the highway.
Some fellow truckers fear that the new technology will put them out work?
Runions: To these I’d say that tens of thousands of trucking jobs are opening now. And the industry is struggling to fill them. I think that demand plus the growing need for remote drivers mean there’ll be plenty of trucking jobs down the road.
You are sure that allowing drivers to work remotely will ultimately make their lives better?
Runions: You see, If you can get where you can have a 40-hour weekly job like a regular person and be home for your family, can’t ask no more than that, I think. That’s like a regular life. A lot of drivers don’t have that.