Back in 1980, country music star Bobby Bare released an album called “Drunk & Crazy,” which, as one might guess from the title, was not a gospel compilation but a often irreverent celebration of debauchery containing such colorful numbers as “Drinkin’ and Druggin’ and Watchin’ TV” and “I’ve Never Gone to Bed with an Ugly Woman (But I’ve Sure Woke up with a Few.”)
Among the album’s songs, many written by the late and noted children’s author and Playboy cartoonist Shel Silverstein, is one that may have been sadly prophetic, called “World’s Last Truck Drivin’ Man.” The lyrics talk of the year 2080 when most of the trucks have rusted away “…and the Harvesters rot in the sand/ And in a deserted truck stop sits Tennessee Thompson/The world's last truck drivin' man.”
According to a Sept. 4 report in The Wall Street Journal, that timetable could be eerily accurate.
The newspaper said autonomous driving technology could replace some 294,000 long-distance truck drivers over the next 25 years, or by 2043. If technology continues to develop at such a rapid pace, 37 years after that – or 2080 – Tennessee Thompson could be the world’s last truck driving man, lamenting “you are losin' your truckers/and you suckers do not give a damn/You're freightin' in space and there just ain't no place/For a hard ridin' truck drivin' man.”
And that sure would be a shame from where I’m sitting, which is not up in the cab of a semi-truck but in the comfortably worn easy chair of nostalgia, remembering when I was kid, hanging out at an oil jobber where my dad worked, waiting for the big rigs full of kerosene and gasoline to roll in from the terminal in Spartanburg to fill up the big tanks for distribution.
As I have detailed in past columns, the drivers were Fred and Ronald, the trucks if my memory serves, were a White Freightliner and a Kenworth, and when they rolled in, the world stopped for coffee and Sundrop and Honeybuns and sardines and tall tales, some of which may not have been fit for a youngster’s ears. I would get rides around the lot and, on a few lucky occasions, down the highway for a short trip and loop back around to what everyone just called “the plant.”
They were less stereotypical good ol’ boy movie and TV truckers – no cowboy hats and CB catcalling – and more professional working men, a couple of fellows easing into middle age riding up and down the highway, getting the job done.
But to a kid smelling the diesel smoke, hearing the engines growl and watching them step out of the cab and come down to earth with the rest of us, they were something special.
Could that be all but over in 2080?
Maybe or maybe not, says Brian Fielkow, CEO of Houston-based Jetco Delivery.
Talking with Yahoo Finance, Fielkow said autonomous trucks could open up some opportunities.
“A lot of people think self-driving trucks are going to make the need for truck drivers less,” Fielkow said on Yahoo Finance’s Midday Movers. “Actually, that’s not the case. In my mind, the biggest asset that technology is going to bring is that it’s going to attract drivers back into the trucks. The driver-assist technology, automatic breaking, roll stability, speed and space management, the ergonomics, the comfort that’s coming into new trucks, (are) going to make truck-driving fun again.”
I hope so. I hope Tennessee Thompson is not the world’s last truck divin’ man and I hope there are Freds and Ronalds yet to be born who will ride up and down the highway, getting the job done and listening to new truck-driving songs on satellite radio.
“Well, I pulled out of Pittsburgh in my autonomous truck/That robot waitress gave me a little kiss for luck/No law enforcement drones in sight/My computer chips are working all right/I haven’t touched the wheel and I’m gonna make it home tonight.”
Scott Hollifield is editor/GM of The McDowell News in Marion, N.C. and a humor columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.