By Geoffrey Cann
Canada rarely makes the global case for advanced technology adoption, but the trucker protest movement has given a big and unexpected boost to autonomous trucking.
Trucking Sit In
My dear spouse (as if there is some other kind of spouse) recently received a missive from friends half-way around the planet asking if we’re ok through the trucking turmoil. In short, yes, we’re fine. We don’t live in a place of national prominence or near any critical national infrastructure. In fact, I’ve never participated in a protest of any kind being fearful of the uncertain consequences, and I can’t recall even being inconvenienced by someone else’s protest, although I’m occasionally grateful for their actions.
This is one of the many benefits of being Canadian.
In case you’re not across the story (and many readers may not be so attuned to Canadian civil activity) the Canadian government did not initially force a choice about vaccinations on the truck driving community during the pandemic.
This is a reflection of how codependent the Canadian economy is with the US economy. For example, a single bridge between Winsor Ontario and Detroit Michigan, the Ambassador Bridge, is said to facilitate daily trade valued at $375m between the two countries. Trucking itself is pretty critical to the Canadian economy. We’re a geographically big country, and the only way to get goods on shelves or parts to factories is to truck them in.
Since the vaccinations were a year in gestation, but transborder trade could not wait, the health authorities gave truckers the bye, as it were. They were free to travel without much restriction and no vaccination or inconvenient testing requirement (unlike everyone else in the country. See my post about my travel experience). This created a kind of perceived entitlement for truckers, that they were somehow immune to the health care rules. But now that the vaccines are widely available and effective, government authorities are insisting that truckers face the same vaccination choice as everyone else — get the jab and move on, or go without the jab and accept the consequences.
Canadians are a funny lot. We don’t like it when the rules change capriciously (an understandable problem in a pandemic) and we side with the aggrieved who are wrong-footed by bureaucracy. But we also have strong values about our common wealth. Our common wealth as a nation includes our roads and bridges, ports and airports, hospitals, education systems, and water treatment facilities. For example, healthcare cost is syndicated to the population broadly via taxation, and in exchange we’re ok with imposing guardrails around personal behavior so that those costs don’t get out of line and then distributed to the rest of us.
That’s why Canada endorses stringent gun control laws, bicycle and motorcycle helmet laws, seatbelt laws, cigarette warnings, highway speed limits, and lots of other annoying rules.
Farmers totally get how to work the system to their advantage. Farmers frequently drive their gear or livestock to Ottawa to protest some rules they don’t like (such as freer market access by low cost dairy products) and after they make their point, they leave. Lawmakers consult with their constituents, who are sympathetic to the farmers, and then harden the laws to further protect the farming community.
Meanwhile, the truckers bifurcated into two camps—the 90% who understood that their no-vaccination, testing-free travel entitlement was illusory and fleeting, and got the jab; and the 10% who didn’t like the choice on offer (much like many other professions) and decided to protest.
The aggrieved chose to blockade common wealth infrastructure with their equipment to voice their displeasure. It started with city streets and has now spread to other more critical infrastructure (bridges, airports, ports, highway links). Canadians and lawmakers were perhaps initially sympathetic with the truckers but unlike farmers who time-box their protest activities, the truckers are emboldened by their amped up media exposure and lack of response from the authorities (likely thinking that the truckers would have left by now, like the farmers smartly do).
Ironically, the same Canadian lawmakers that the truckers are trying to influence are simultaneously lobbying the US government on the new ‘Build Back Better’ legislation to save trucker and other auto making jobs. This law provides tax incentives to build new electric vehicles in the US and risks cutting Canada off from the EV investment boom. The truckers are inadvertently undermining their own long term jobs by making the case for the American protectionists that Canada is not a reliable partner in the EV revolution.
Follow the Money
One of my maxims in life is to always follow the money—who profits (or loses) from this protest action, and who has a horse in the race.
I can’t quite see how a Canadian trucker profits from taking their rig off the road and into a makeshift parking lot on Parliament Hill. Rigs are like any other supply chain asset—they only make money while they’re trucking. That’s why truckers needed to use the crowd funding platform GoFundMe to raise funds for their costs. Choke off the funds and the truckers will need to go home. And I’m not sure the truckers have fully thought through the consequences of their actions, as I’ll outline below.
By blocking vital cross border infrastructure, US truckers are helping US manufacturers rationalise their operations south of the border, supporting the logic of Build Back Better, which will almost certainly result in a hollowing out of Canada’s manufacturing heartland. US truckers then benefit by the increased domestic goods movement and fewer cross border trips.
The US media machine, Fox News, certainly profits. They need eyeballs for their media products, and unsurprisingly, they are affording lots of coverage to the event, both in Canada and increasingly around the world. Copycat sit-ins are in motion globally, which fuels their ad business.
Those that foment and distribute conspiratorial thinking also profit because their ideas gain follower-ship. Amplification of their ideas increases their caché among some lawmakers.
Lawmakers are beholden to, and paid by, their constituents. A majority of Canadians now hold a negative view of truckers who have taken the common wealth hostage, enabling lawmakers and police to respond aggressively against truckers and trucking firms who participate in such blockades.
The supply lines across the longest undefended border in the world are starting to break. Automakers are now idling assembly plants. These big businesses have generally imposed the vaccine choice on their employees, and are now find themselves hostage to some tiny trucking business. Surely there will be repercussions.
I would not want to be a trucker after this blockade. The Canadian urge to halt such an affront on our common wealth from happening again has no limits and many avenues to pursue.
The police are certainly taking names as trucks conveniently have logos on their doors and license plates (kind of like the 1000’s of Americans who engaged in ‘legitimate political discourse’ on Jan 6 and posted photos of themselves online desecrating the global icon of democracy). Fines and sanctions will follow.
Lawmakers will kick into action. Using vehicles to block sensitive infrastructure could be outlawed. Vehicles could be subject to seizure and impound (sorry, farmers, but the truckers are about to make your favored protest move illegal). Making such blockades a criminal activity guarantees those who protest a criminal record. That’s a list you don’t want to be on.
American truckers who have inconvenienced Canadian common wealth could be harassed at the border in future, as a discouragement from doing so again. Canadian truckers could well encounter the same treatment going into the US.
Businesses that have been harmed (auto plants, factories, and other trade dependent firms) will consider meeting with lawmakers to press for change. Procurement rules could be updated to see that those firms who enabled unnecessary business interruption are not rewarded with more business. US plants that are dependent on their Canadian suppliers are likely to contemplate moving that production back to the US so as to avoid interruptions in the future.
The Digital Angle
There’s a story about carbon and digital in this. A future of electrified and autonomous trucking puts this kind of blockade decisively on the scrap heap.
Estimates vary but as much as $330b in investment is flowing into creating electric and autonomous vehicles. Decarbonization is one reason, but the shortage of truck drivers and the superior economics of autonomous electric vehicles (lower run costs, lower carbon footprint, fewer accidents, lower insurance) make this innovation category very attractive. Autonomous trucking pilots are taking place everywhere.
Autonomous vehicles without a human driver on board (or children being used as a kind of human shield) in a similar blockade will elicit a less sympathetic response from the public and police authorities. Immediate seizure and forfeit will be easier to conduct. The owner of an unmanned autonomous electric vehicle will think twice about having their conveyance in such a position.
Electrified vehicles will require some regular power supply (cabling) to keep them going. That infrastructure is not yet in place, but almost certainly, electric power can and will be denied more easily to an EV involved in a sit-in than carry-in diesel fuel supply, and will absolutely be unavailable to a truck in a queue to a bridge.
All of which makes you appreciate why Elon Musk (who profits from selling electrified transportation, including large heavy haulers, and is pioneering the development of autonomous vehicles) is tweeting support for the trucking blockade. Tesla needs more political, social, and regulatory support for their new transportation solutions, and the longer this blockade persists and the more it spreads globally, the stronger the case for swiftly adopting electric and autonomous heavy haulers.
I once speculated that a 60 year old trucker is job secure, that a 50 year old will be able to just see out their trucking career, but that a 40 year old trucker is an endangered species, and a 30 year old should seek their fortune elsewhere. I didn’t even consider the possibility that truckers themselves would make the case to accelerate autonomous and electric vehicles, but here we are.
Check out my book, ‘Bits, Bytes, and Barrels: The Digital Transformation of Oil and Gas’, coming soon in Russian, and available on Amazon and other on-line bookshops.
Sign up for my next book, ‘Carbon, Capital, and the Cloud: A Playbook for Digital Oil and Gas’, coming March 15, 2022.
Take Digital Oil and Gas, the one-day on-line digital oil and gas awareness course on Udemy.