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The days of manual trash collection in the city of San Diego are numbered.

Manual trucks are the old-fashioned two-person trucks with a “swamper” riding on the back, hanging onto a rail. When the truck stops in front of a house, the swamper jumps to the pavement and grabs cans from the curb to empty them as fast as physically possible. If there are three or more cans at one stop, the driver will jump out of the cab, run to the back of the truck to help the swamper, then race back to the cab, pop the brake and drive to the next stop. Then do it all over again, hundreds of stops per day.

Automation uses one-person trucks. Inside the cab, the driver controls a hydraulic, robotic arm that juts from the side of the truck and grabs the container from the curb, hoists it into the air to empty it into a cavity at the top of the truck.

The action is manipulated by a joystick. The driver has to be sure the transmission is in neutral for each pick-up, otherwise the truck will lurch forward, possibly hitting a parked car. The rpms have to be just right.

Operating an automated trash truck is a little like playing Nintendo all day long with a 20-ton truck. Except, if you make a mistake, someone could be injured or even killed.

Right now, most trash and recycling is automated. Most greenery is manual, although there is a move to expand automation to all the greenery routes. Hard-to-collect routes, like Mission Beach and one-ways and alleys, that are too narrow for an automated truck to access, are generally collected by “flipper” trucks. These are two-person trucks using a manually-operated hydraulic lift attached to the hopper.

Problems with automation:

1: Less personal than manual collection. The driver sits high off the street and is not eye-level with residents who may want to come up and ask a question.

2. More stressful. The steering wheel is on the “wrong” side. That is, it’s on the right-hand side, the way it’s done in England. Problem is, we’re not talking about little English cars here. We’re talking about huge garbage trucks. And, our freeways and streets weren’t designed for vehicles with right-hand steering wheels. Also, new hazards caused by the fact more clearance is needed to dump containers. Garage overhangs, low-hanging power lines and parked cars are easy targets for the robotic arm. The driver must be always vigilant

3. Back problems have been replaced with problems due to repetitive motion and stress — weight gain, heart problems,

4: Automation is slower than manual. The cans can only be collected as fast as the hydraulic arm can go. Equipment malfunctions cause further delays.

5. Harder to tell what’s in the trash. It’s easier for residents to get away with throwing out illegal items, such as motor oil and construction debris.

Advantages of Automation:

1. It’s popular and residents generally love it. People, especially kids, are fascinated by the automated trucks.

2. Award winning. National Fleet of the Year Award in 2005 by Fleet Owner Magazine for “Best In Class,” Innovative Management of Vocational Fleet. And since 1996 City Sanitation Drivers have been given the “highest rated service” in the city Resident Satisfaction Awards.

Also, city of San Diego Sanitation Drivers have won the EIA National Driver of the Year award four times, more than any other department in North America.

3. For drivers who can handle the stress, it allows drivers to work for more years without back injuries.

JOAN RAYMOND

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