GPS in Interstate Trucking in Australia: Intelligence, Surveillance, or Compliance Tool?

By on June 29th, 2017 in Magazine Articles, Privacy & Security, Societal Impact

The Australian trucking industry uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) as its main tracking system. A satellite dish connects the moving truck to the driver. This enables the weight of the truck to be monitored. It also allows the driver’s behavior to be tracked, in terms of speed, stops, starts, etc. The truck is tracked in real time.

Do we want our workers to be subject to surveillance in real time? What is the impact of using GPS on these workers?

The use of this tracking system in the Australian trucking industry raises key questions. Who is using the records of these movements, and how are they being used? We consider the use of GPS tracking information for driver, for the private company managing its own fleet, and for local regulators. Therefore, GPS is considered in this work as a management tool, a safety tool, and a regulatory device.

Do we want our workers to be subject to surveillance in real time? What is the impact of using GPS on these workers? This research is informed by “in the field” data collection between 2008 and 2011. Twenty-four drivers were interviewed from the passenger seats of their trucks. The drivers were all male. The road trips taken as part of this study were between 10 and 15 hours in duration.

GPS for Logistics Management

The words surveillance, oversight, regulatory system, and control are not used by management in the Australian trucking industry. Rather, GPS has become a “tool of the trade” for trucking corporations in terms of logistics management. Private companies report that the use of GPS reduces operational and compliance costs, improves business profitability, and increases efficiency.

GPS devices allow managers to more accurately estimate both the time of arrival and the time of delivery of goods to the customer. The logistics manager/operator can ping a truck, dial a driver, and gain real-time information about the timeliness of the delivery or pick up. Another example: scheduling unloading spaces in dockyard and storage facilities is a significant cost of doing business. GPS allows companies to optimally book their unloading spaces.

At the same time, vehicle tracking and tracking driver behavior in the trucking industry can result in reports that record every detail of the history of a driver’s behavior. These reports are used as a management tool, and also as records to be shared with law enforcement and other regulatory bodies.

GPS provides a detailed view of the decisions that the drivers make while they are driving. This data can be downloaded for post-driving examination. A subset of that data can be derived for geo-fencing microanalysis. This is akin to taking a section of a report and examining a particular aspect of the driver’s behavior, such as whether the driver was travelling at a higher speed. The explanation is not attached to the report, only the real-time record. Technical language is used to describe the function of the GPS, such as “engine diagnostics,” emphasizing, that the machinery is the focus, not the driver. Pamphlets advertising the satellite-supported programs in the trucking industry avoid declaring the worker as the focus of the GPS output. The device and its systems are referred to as just another management logistics tool.

Transport companies are attracted to measurement as their logistics departments believe they can establish outputs, and profits or loss vindicating performance.

But as managers, we also understand that performance that is measured, and that is also then used to direct workers to improve their behavior — such as not being efficient in driving long distance — can be viewed as destructive. What is measured is managed, and this has become the mantra of management-consulting companies worldwide [3].

Companies can augment a GPS system with telematics. Telematics can measure weight, distance, and speed, and can then engage a mathematical diagnostic tool that provides a detailed picture of driver behavior. The data is very detailed, measured in short bursts of discrete intervals. Given there is only one driver driving a truck at one time, this can infer a lot about a given individual monitored over a given trip. The volume of data makes the management of the recorded information unwieldy. As a result, a driver can be pinpointed as an employee who is unreliable, or is reported as unreliable, or perhaps as a troublemaker. In other words, cultural work practices may play a role. For example, there are currently company “offenses”: called “General Fatigue Offenses.” These relate to work diaries, accreditation certificates, and exemption notices. They represent key factors in managing fatigue and road safety, and the department considers them all major offenses [11].

The truck driver is now directly accountable for interpreting the data recorded in the event that a company identifies driver behavior in certain circumstances. Companies who are selling the technology to transport industries advertise GPS as “powerful fleet visualization and intelligence tools which provide real-time decision making to any Internet-connected device.”

GPS Development Industry

The role of companies involved in developing GPS technology is another important issue to address because these companies market the tool as having the ability to solve industry logistical problems. Rarely is the driver mentioned when discussing surveillance technology. Only when the technology is used as a disciplinary intervention or oversight mechanism is the role of the truck driver discussed. The driver becomes the focus of the next step in the process through the regulatory bodies, the institutions, and the courts.

The people designing technological advances for worksites may have very creative ideas. However the motivations behind those ideas needs to include the relationship between the technological advance and the workplace. The lack of any built-in flexibility in the technology generates black and white results. This makes the data generated of limited use.

Third-Party Use of GPS Data Logs: The Use and Misuse of Statistics

As politicians work to improve the transport industry, public services have been required to acquire and utilize private enterprise trucking data on a national level for the purposes of intelligence analysis. The data is used to generate measures such as tax levies for national road-development, as well as other predictors concerning the comparison of road versus rail transport options.

Companies, unions, associations, and other truck driver welfare agencies generally do not have the capacity or capability to talk to drivers in the industry. The Australia National Transport Commission Heavy Vehicle Driver Fatigue-Final Regulatory Impact Statement estimated that there were approximately 203 800 drivers in 107 800 fleets [10, p. 103]. This excluded fleets in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

There are no external restrictions protecting workers’ individual rights related to the use of GPS.

Technological GPS devices, in particular units with electronic tacho graph capability, graphically show simultaneous engine and vehicle speed, and indicate how a vehicle is driven for a twenty-four hour period. If the graph shows that the vehicle’s speed decreased suddenly but the engine speed did not, the driver may have been tailgating and had to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident [4]. This statement reflects assumptions that can be made looking at statistical data. As a former police officer with high-speed driving training, I can think of several other possible scenarios that could explain such records.

Observing the Worker and Unions

The Australian union movement has not gained any momentum in questioning the use of GPS technology in the trucking industry. This raises the question of whether workers care that they are being watched and recorded by machines. At the same time, union membership is declining, perhaps because the union represents the area of workplace conditions involving perceived logistical efficiency. Efficiency is also linked to safety issues. If the GPS is controlling truck-driving behavior, then the argument provided is that “safety is increased.”

This results in acceptance and/or promotion of the use of GPS systems from a variety of directions — from GPS technology developers, from the companies using the GPS, in the area of civil rights (mitigated by perceived safety benefits), and law enforcement.

However, at this time there are no external restrictions that may, if introduced, protect workers’ individual rights related to the use of GPS. Herbert and Tuminaro [5] comment on unionism and legislation concerning emerging technologies:

At the same time, the confluence of diminished union density in the United States, the growth of decentralized workplaces, and the development of sophisticated tracking-technology have accentuated the importance of individual worker privacy, and the need for examining additional regulatory protections in the workplace (p. 359).

Challenging the Use of GPS Tracking

In the United States, The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of Summary Judgment against a truck driver in his GPS-related Duty of Fair Representation claim against the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT).

In Hinkley v. Roadway Express, Inc., the IBT had negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with the trucking company containing a provision that prohibited the use of computer tracking devices for disciplinary purposes. Nevertheless, the company, after comparing the driver’s recording of his deliveries and pick-ups with computerized location information emanating from the GPS device in the truck, fired the driver for making an unauthorized personal stop at a store. In support of the driver’s grievance, the IBT argued that he should be reinstated with back wages because the company had used the GPS tracking information to discipline the driver in violation of the contract [5, p. 376].

This case records some of the complexities of the use of GPS systems in the workplace. The data generated by the tracking device, its role in evidence, the failure of the company to notify the driver or the court concerning the GPS data, and the union’s failure to act without discrimination results in the driver ultimately losing his position.

If the GPS is controlling truck-driving behavior, then the argument provided is that “safety is increased.”

The New South Wales Work Place Surveillance Act reviews where surveillance can be used. This Act requires that at all times it is to be disclosed to the employee by the employer if the employee is under surveillance. There is also a list of exceptions, such as when someone believes there is a threat. Further research into the application of the laws in this area is needed.

Ball [1] (cited by Snider [8]) discusses the development of surveillance technology as a business:

“Business organizations had their own ‘othered’ populations to control, namely their employees. Since the earliest days of capitalism, businesses have been obsessed with finding ever more sophisticated (and intrusive) mechanisms to manage, discipline, and ultimately eliminate human employees from the production process. ‘Innovations’ to ‘increase productivity’ range from the 19th century Taylorist workplace to the computer-monitored electronic workplace of today. The dream of controlling every element of production is now on the horizon. The productivity of every call-centre employee, number of calls, number of sales, and call duration minus the time taken for any bathroom or lunch breaks, is instantly available to the employer, employee, and co-workers” (Ball [1] (cited by Snider [8, p. 5])).

As recently as 2011, truck drivers were being addressed about time and management performance at container sites as they unloaded their containers at Port Botany, a major Australian docking site. The logistics manager can demand particular levels of performance. The truck driver is bound to comply or be spoken to about time or efficiency, but those conversations were not placed in context, particularly the context of not having a job in the future. Instead, the clock ticks and the GPS continues to record the driver’s movements.

Insights from the Field

Another point to consider is the number of hours that drivers undertake in any given week. These sets of hours are tracked and in a six-day working week, or a 72-hour working week, one driver completes three return trips from Sydney to Melbourne (960 km). The driver also does three return trips from Sydney to Brisbane (1000 km). When the trip spans from Adelaide to Perth (2700 m km), two drivers drive with a GPS activated, and they only do a return trip from Adelaide to Perth twice in a six-day period. It is the same for two drivers doing Adelaide to Darwin (3000 km).

The person or logistics managers watching the GPS is working different shifts, but as the personnel in the console change while the driver drives, a computer is recording every second that the truck is moving or stationary. The details recorded can be printed out and sent to any regulatory body, and may be included in the driver’s payment records.

Drivers Discuss Companies

  • Driver A: “The companies say that they have the trackers on so that they can watch that the drivers don’t go to where they are not supposed to go to. For example, they watch so the driver does not call in at home, or go to the shops or in some cases visit their girlfriends. The companies say that they can manage their compliance. The logistics manager can prove that he is running the fleet under the company’s regulations. Companies are rife, they get into trouble, and then they sell the company and it all starts again. Different company, same driver, same potholes, same road, same shit, I just zone out, if not…I worry about it…all…we can do the same thing. They change a company name when they are in trouble and we can pick up move on to somewhere that I can work for.”
  • Driver B: “A company can get multi non-conforming notices. Particularly, in one state, they brought in a new system and then they notified multiple offenses. The company never gets to justify or refute any of the offenses. If they try to sell the company, then all the non-conforming notices are attached to the company records. The Road Traffic Authority can get any records from a company on demand. They don’t need a warrant; they can just get them so the company is caught on all fronts. The new system and the amount of offenses were so huge in number, even the administrators believed there was an error in the system.”
  • Driver C: “Companies run trucks with different weights so for the truck to be on certain roads, they have to justify what they are carrying. So a 68-tonne load must have a higher-mass limit tracker on it, then if that truck is tracked on roads that he is not allowed to travel on he is breaking the regulations. So a GPS system will tell the boss when the driver is going to get to the depot. Say they check and find the truck is 10 kilometres away, but they can also check that the truck went the correct way.”

Drivers Discuss Surveillance

  • Driver A: “So you can feel like you’re a criminal in the truck because you’re being watched from the time you get into it, till the time you get out by Road Traffic Authority (RTA), police, and the boss. They take our time sheets and check, are we are using the truck for private use? Then they check are we working properly so that they can make money. What I don’t understand is that I work legitimately, and I end up being rung up anyway. They ask can you get there early…faster? My mate got rung up because he was stopped. They could see the truck was stopped. What are you doing? He was tired. He was working…on time and having a sleep. They wanted to know why?”
  • Driver B: “I was coming down a steep hill. We all knew there was a cop sitting hiding in the bushes, hand held radar, so I am coming down and the cop follows me, pulls me over. He tells me that I am doing 118 km. So why would I speed when I know that he is there and I am going down a hill? Typical stuff that they do although the Commissioner said the other day “visibility” is the best deterrent. Anyway, I reached up turned the key off. I said to the cop I have just switched my GPS off. So when I turn it off. I know the company is going to ring me and ask why I did it. I am then going to say… check my records. So we can print out my speeds for the last 20 minutes or so and I know that I am doing just over one hundred kilometres an hour probably one hundred and one kilometres so I am legal. So these systems can be used both ways if you know how.”

Having briefly mentioned the profit involved in selling the GPS technology and the laws that can be introduced to support such technology, it is important to note that policy makers are not discussing the issues around oversight. Perhaps this is because the more powerful worksites such as worksites for police, doctors, and politicians are generally not subject to such oversights. Both Snider [8] and Herbert and Tuminaro [5] refer to important issues such as accountability and transparency regarding employees and employers. They also discuss, in detail, the growing relationship between surveillance of employees, companies, and law enforcement [5, p. 375]. Worksite information is shared, unencumbered in Australia, by regulatory oversight, and the gap is closing between the Australian justice systems and the Australian economic systems. Individual civil rights are disappearing between these two systems. Australian traffic enforcement institutions can readily and legally access an employee’s record obtained through GPS.

Companies say that they have the trackers on so that they can watch that the drivers don’t go to where they are not supposed to.

We are not discussing an engine’s dynamics but rather, a driver’s behavior. The system now established could also turn against itself, as the company, which has installed the GPS devices as a method of proving its safety practices, can find that their records are also available to government authorities and the on us is on the company to prove that this new and unregulated technology is correct, or in some cases incorrect. These official records, once permanently on an electronic server, can determine a company’s “health” in terms of compliance. An imperfect system can be held to record perfect results. Another scenario to consider is that a company uses such data as evidence to increase consumer and government confidence (Canadian Research Council p. 395).

The complacent public acceptance of GPS in interstate trucks condones the practice of gathering this information in the area of electronic commerce, meaning the worksite. When an industry accepts the unregulated handing of information to judicial institutions, then this opens the practice to a range of worksites. The ever-increasing growth of control and oversight as the dominant management workplace approach advances as human progress gains momentum [6, p. 399].

In summary, employer implementation of new technologies is rationalized as a managerial prerogative aimed at increasing efficiency, tracking employees, and monitoring employer-owned property [5, p. 375]. Economic, social, and individual factors have been discussed as the development of technology is now being widely used in the interstate trucking industry. Our aim is to give these men a voice in the public arena so they can convey to the reader what is occurring in their workplace. Electronic surveillance is not as black and white as the dot that appears on the screen that records in real time the driver’s location.

The realities of owner-operators going bankrupt often appear as a result of these regulatory practices. Smaller owner-operated companies can go out of business as fines accumulate. If we don’t assume that truck drivers are constantly conducting their driving behavior in an illegal and risky fashion, then this degree of oversight may be unnecessary. Certainly it is very difficult for a “rogue operator” to remain in business, as much of the work is generated within the culture of the industry and a reputation for reliability is required.

The culture of the drivers will also change. Truck drivers will learn how to utilize the technology in many different ways. These changes in workplace practices are very important for future research projects. Workers will learn to accommodate surveillance, resulting in both positive and negative outcomes. Senior executives, regulators, and policy makers will simply regard the change in workers’ behaviors as a challenge to develop further regulatory changes, usually by increasing regulatory avenues.

Weather and landscape features, such as mountains, also affect GPS systems. Mobile phone coverage is not consistently available within the Australian landscape, plus injured drivers will not necessarily be able to make phone calls. When a driver turns the key on a truck fitted with one of these systems, then the panel board on the truck will immediately start the GPS system and the recording commences. The drivers are aware of the tracking devices and they work with the constant feeling of oversight. This level of oversight is unusual compared to other occupations. Blue-collar workers might commonly be tracked but academics, doctors, and police are yet to accept satellite links that can put their position on a screen, which is monitored by an employer. Unfortunately, two-way communication is not possible if the driver finds him or herself in an urgent or desperate situation. The GPS is recording a truck stopped, however, fails to relay why it has stopped. A driver could be in the cabin down the side of a cliff and they cannot contact the logistics manager who may or may not be observing the truck’s movements on a screen.

If a humane approach is recommended then we do not need to discover a new method to manage issues in the workplace but, in fact, “recover” what we already know works, a human socially-progressive approach [7, p. 194].

We are introducing GPS surveillance without information systems governed by industry codes, standards, legal rules, administrative, or corporate agreements. There is also an increasing introduction and application of the systems. The state of affairs in Australia currently appears to be “shaped by a myriad of relatively informal customs” and attitudes that prevail in an industry which is already troubled by a lack of regulatory uniformity [2, pp. 395–396].


An earlier version of this article was presented at “Sousveillance and the Social Implications of Point of View Technologies in the Law Enforcement Sector,” Sixth Workshop on the Social Implications of National Security, Sydney University, NSW, Australia, February 22, 2012.


Jann Karp is an Australian researcher and academic. She is the author of Truckies: Life Behind The Wheel (Wbook 2012) and can be reached at