Talking Tech with Truckers: AI and Chatbots

Friday, April 7, 2023

On April 6, Steve Sashihara returned to Road Dog Trucking Radio to discuss trucking and emerging technology. Following are excerpts of his conversation with host Mark Willis.

Mark Willis: It’s great to welcome back Steve Sashihara with Princeton Consultants.

Steve Sashihara: Thanks, Mark. Great to be on. Every year, we do a survey with transportation executives on what’s new, what they’re looking at. This year, everyone’s talking about AI.

Mark: Absolutely. Tell folks what that is.

Steve: AI, as your listeners will recognize, stands for Artificial Intelligence. That’s about all we can agree on—there’s a big argument about what it really means. Anyway, late last year a new technology was launched to the public called ChatGPT. It’s amazing. Everyone’s talking about it and what’s coming next.

Mark: What is coming next? Is there a thought that AI is going to be felt in trucking and—I’m using air quotes—invading the cab? Maybe a camera trained on the driver’s face will use AI and it will monitor the eyelids?

Steve: [laughs] You and I and your listeners have talked about self‑driving trucks and cameras, and so forth. This is helping a whole other area having to do with, for example, all the paperwork, the emails, the voicemails that everyone in our field, if you’re solo and doing that yourself or you have a partner that’s doing it for you. If you drive for a big company, there’s probably a whole floor of people dealing with that paperwork and communication. AI can help. For example, most drivers have an app with which you can take a picture of a bill of lading and upload it—but then you might find out later that it’s too blurry. Maybe AI can say, “Hey, take that photo again—it’s not readable.”

Mark: So AI is not going to move the driver out of the cab, but it may give a nudge—if you do this or try that, we should be good, like a companion along for the ride, so to speak.

Steve: Yes, particularly in poor driving conditions where it might not be so bad to pull off. When there’s fog or rain, AI and driver-assist can help.

Mark: Will it be a challenge to convince longtime drivers out there about the importance of this kind of technology? We’re throwing more and more things at them, and they’ve got to drive as well.

Steve: I feel there shouldn’t be a lot of arm-twisting required. New tech should be so good that drivers just want it. The iPhone came out in 2007 and today you don’t have to arm‑twist people to use a smartphone. A lot of the driver‑assist tech should be the same way.

Mark: It may be very expensive for motor carriers to utilize this kind of technology. What are we talking about, as far as the upfront cost? On the other side, is this going to pay long‑term dividends?

Steve: The good news is that typically private equity companies fund technology startups, who are incented to get their stuff in the hands of as many people as they can. Usually, when you're buying new technology, you’re buying it much lower than cost. The start-ups are essentially trying to give their tech away, get a market going, and then over time make their money. AI technologies for trucking aren’t just for the big companies, who compete with owner-ops and can’t pay a whole lot more than anyone else. Most of the new technology we’re seeing is consumer‑priced.

Mark: Will shippers look at a trucking company and say, “Based on AI technology and better visibility to our freight, we’re going to be more apt to give you business”?

Steve: Maybe. Also, consider that if you’re a specialized carrier, like flatbed, you might see insurance carriers offer discounts if you’re using more AI technology.

Mark: Let’s switch gears a little bit, What are chatbots, and what are they used for? What do you see there?

Steve: A chatbot is something that uses text messaging as its native language in and out. The chatbot engages in a conversation with you. If you think about the last generation of AI technologies, like Alexa by Amazon and Siri by Apple, it’s voice and you talk, but they don’t really do very much. The new generation of chatbots is amazing and you feel like you have a personal assistant.

Mark: One concern is that if you say something, maybe Alexa is going to pick it up, and on your computer, you’ll see a story or an advertisement come up for the very thing that you’re talking about. Are chatbots also eavesdropping on our conversations that we’re having with family, friends, or coworkers?

Steve: Chatbots are quite different, Mark, because anything you type and send, it listens to—but it has no microphone or camera or other way of getting information. At least to me, it seems a lot more constrained and a lot better for privacy.

Mark: How does this apply to the trucking world? Where are the benefits with chatbots?

Steve: Up and down the supply chain, there is an awful lot of email and text. An inserted chatbot can make the conversation loops go faster. Today, many drivers are using their laptops when they’re waiting or they’re in stop‑and‑go traffic. A chatbot is a tool for the cab to improve communication with your back office, with your customers, with other truckers, to get more situational awareness.

Mark: It’s going to improve efficiency. This is real‑time, correct, in that the response from the chatbot is going to be instantaneous?

Steve: Instantaneous. If it takes more than a couple of seconds, it's not something you want.

Mark: You’ve got to be amazed at the technology that is here. Chatbots, AI. Are we moving too quickly?

Steve: I’m a techie, so I love it! I understand that for a lot of people, it’s a little bit frightening, and I acknowledge that. But ChatGPT is about as big a deal as the iPhone was in 2007, a big, big deal.

Mark: Steve, thank you very much.

If you'd like to discuss this subject with Steve, email us to set up a call.