The Best Way to Look at the Future is to Examine the Past
What happens when you spend a few glorious hours on the back of a Harley, unplugged from the world, not talking, just taking in the beautiful desert air? Well if you’re me, after the first hour of decompressing your mind goes to work. But not in an ‘ugh’ kind of way but rather, in a good, deep creative kind of way.
You see, I’m a public relations professional in the transportation industry. In particular, I’m a denizen of the trucking industry. And to drill it down even more, I’m a public relations professional that specializes in the role that technology plays in the trucking industry. And I’ve been doing that, and only that, for 24 years now. 24 years! Almost half my life.
So why am I telling you this? Street cred. That’s right. Good old-fashioned street cred. During that ride, my head was spinning with not only what I’ve experienced in the last 24 years but what I’m about to experience in the next 24 years.
Trucking technology is on fire right now!! And if ever there was a time to be in the world of trucking technology this is it. It hit me like a big bug splatting on my helmet that history is about to repeat itself, but this time I’m not a 25 year old who is watching the world of trucking technology unfold before my very eyes. This time I’m a public relations veteran that has led, followed, observed, studied, lived and breathed trucking technology.
This time I can take what I have learned from the past and apply it to the future! And now that the madness of trade show season is over I plan on putting on my Trucking Technology Public Relations hat to share my experiences of the past 24 years, and perhaps shed some light on what the next 24 years in the world of trucking technology will look like. Everything comes full circle and eventually history repeats itself, it just comes back in a slightly different form. So let’s examine the past to get a glimpse into the future.
But first let’s establish the Street Cred:
In 1993, I knew nothing about trucking and even less about technology when I was hired by QUALCOMM as a public relations coordinator for its Omnitracs division. My first role in public relations and trucking technology was to teach the trucking industry about GPS (or in this case QUALCOMM’s GPS-like triangulation technology) and explain to trucking company owners that having the ability to see where their trucks were and to communicate with their drivers while they were moving in the truck would do great things for their business.
I explained that with Omnitracs they would no longer have to hope a driver would stop at a pay phone every few hours for a check call. No more wondering if the driver would actually deliver the load on time. Shoot, no more wondering if your truck filled with tens of thousands of dollars worth of someone else’s merchandise was actually even enroute.
It was an intriguing message for sure, but it was an even tougher concept to grasp. Remember, this was the early ‘90s. Your average person didn’t own a cell phone, the fax machine ruled, email was slowly replacing the intra-office envelope and this weird World Wide Web was just outright confusing. So the idea that you could “see” a truck and communicate with a person driving down the road was just downright spooky and definitely smacked of George Orwell 1984 Big Brother. We don’t even think twice about “dots on a map” now, but back in 1993, dots on a map were an absolutely incredible sight.
But in order to get this technology out there, we had to dispel the fear of Big Brother. That’s right, the ability to “see” and track the movement of trucks was sounding very “Orwellian” and it was freaking drivers out. It was imperative for me to make sure we were communicating the benefits of Omnitracs and dispelling the Big Brother notion.
The days of Smokey and the Bandit, open road, free to do what you want when you wanted were fast coming to an end for truck drivers and many of them were not happy about it one bit. For those drivers that did appreciate and respect the job of delivering everything we eat, drink, touch and wear in a safe and timely manner, this new technology meant their life as a long-haul trucker was about to become just a little bit easier. We just needed to get enough of them to use the technology first in order to prove it!
To give you a little history here, QUALCOMM was using Omnitracs to test some aspects of its CDMA technology (the stuff that now makes your smartphone work today). At that time there was a heated battle between CDMA (code division multiple access) technology and TDMA (time division) and the little start-up QUALCOMM was determined to win (it did). Truck drivers were “texting” well before you and I ever were thanks to Schneider, Werner and other risk taking strategic-thinking early adopters who were willing to give Omnitracs a try.
As many people have experienced, in start-ups we often wear multiple hats (shoot, one Saturday I gladly packed Omnitracs units into boxes because our shipping department wasn’t big enough to handle a recent order and the excitement over the whole thing was just contagious). One hat I wore was to help answer the Omnitracs hotline. And let me tell you, those were some very interesting calls. Between telling drivers they’d been duped out of $49.95 for some part from a very ingenious soul that told them if they plugged this connector kit into their Omnitracs unit they could now get HBO and the Playboy channel for free; at least once a week I’d get a call from a driver that was convinced that now that his truck was equipped with Omnitracs, his company was following his every move even when he wasn’t in the vehicle.
In those cases, I would often laugh and say ‘unless you plan on putting that big upside down Tupperware bowl antenna on your head and somehow figure out how to power it up, there was no way your boss could tell where you were when you weren’t in the truck’. Today, ironically we call that technology Find My Phone and it fits in your pocket, but back in the early-mid 90’s the idea that someone could know EXACTLY where you were was unheard of!!
Dispelling the Big Brother notion was tough but essential because trucking companies didn’t want to lose drivers (yes, even back in the early ‘90s driver turnover was a major issue, just like it is today). Still, we had to stem the all-around confusion about the technology and what it could and couldn’t do (and it really didn’t help when 20/20 tricked me and said they would be doing a story on the use of technology in the workplace only to run an exposé on how technology was invading privacy, and ran our story alongside one about an employer putting a video camera in the employee lounge and listening in on “break room conversations”).
It took a good 7-8 years after Schneider installed the first Omnitracs unit in 1989 to dispel the Big Brother fears and really get the true benefits of the technology out there to the industry. Within 10 years, hundreds of thousands of units from QUALCOMM and many competitors were installed on trucks, and tracking trucks and communicating with drivers was commonplace. The pay phone was just about dead.
In 2000, I started LaunchIt, a PR firm that specializes in helping technology companies gain exposure in the trucking industry. Technology was doing amazing things for trucking and society in general but by then it wasn’t nearly as earth shattering as what happened in the ‘90s.
Big Brother was really just a fact of life now. The benefits of the technology far outweighed the negatives. In the 2000’s and the 2010’s I’d say the use of technology in trucking buzzed along at a nice, steady pace. Sure, we had new challenges to worry about like cybersecurity, distracted driving, people following their GPS navigation systems so closely they were literally driving off roads, but all in all technology in general just buzzed along . For some markets things happened really fast (cameras and taxis come to mind) but for trucking there was nothing overly earth shattering.
So, if you’ve made it this far you may be asking yourself, “OK Susan, what’s the point in all this?” The point in all this is that the best way to enter the future is to listen to the past. By examining the past we can help transform the future. Or in the very least transform the perception of the future.
Now is the time to wag the tail before it wags us! The technological possibilities that are coming in the 2020’s are going to go down in history as the most revolutionary in trucking history. Period. Still, while all those creative ideas are endless, it can all come to an immediate halt if the technology isn’t first accepted. And not just accepted by the trucking industry, but accepted by the business community and the general public at large.
Platooning, connected trucks, driverless vehicles, the disappearance of retail stores, smart infrastructures (and the money it’s going to take to build them), the truck driver and technician shortage and the overall industry image are just a few of areas I plan to muse upon over the next few quiet tradeshow-free weeks.
Stay tuned for more in the Street Cred Series as we examine the past to look at the future.
First stop. Autonomous. Quit using that word!!