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JACOBS: Prepare for a fight on driverless vehicles

Unions will stand against progress

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A little over five years ago at the 2007 DARPA Grand Challenge, competing teams of autonomous vehicles were creeping along at a 14-mph pace as they attempted to finish a 60-mile road course. Fast forward to the present day, and Google’s driverless cars have traveled over 300,000 road miles at traffic speeds without a single accident resulting from its advanced software. The pace at which the technology has reached the threshold of functionality and commercialization is astonishing. Already, auto companies are lining up to prove their capacity to exploit these new technologies. Virtually every major manufacturer from Toyota to Ford has announced their intention to participate heavily in this new market, and more than a few have committed to fully driverless models by the end of the decade.

Analysts have been quick to seize upon the possible pitfalls and disruptions that this new technology could cause. Reams have already been written about impact on insurance and driver responsibility. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has even created an entire working group devoted to the subject. Yet it is more or less taken for granted that with time and preparation, these issues can be resolved. What is really surprising is how circumscribed the analysis on driverless cars has actually been.

Very little thought has been given to the wider implications of driverless vehicles on our society and economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are roughly 1.6 million heavy truck and tractor trailer drivers in the United States, and when including light and medium trucks, this number shoots up to 3.5 million. These figures are crucial to any discussion about the future of driverless vehicles because they represent an entire workforce that could be displaced.

As autonomous vehicles become more ubiquitous, why would anyone need a truck driver to haul their cargo? Humans have so many comparative flaws, they need to stop for rest, sometimes they speed and miss weigh stations, and of course they need to be paid. Autonomous systems like the one Google uses currently cost around $150,000, while the average salary of a truck driver is around $40,000. At these costs it would take only four or five years to recoup the capital cost of a driverless car, and that is before including projected falls in unit cost and the efficiency gains of faster transportation. The obvious conclusion is that freight hauling companies would want to shift to an autonomous fleet as soon as it is feasible.

This shouldn’t be mistaken for idle speculation, as driverless trucks have already begun to figure prominently in corporate strategy. Mining conglomerate Rio Tinto has purchased more than 150 driverless trucks for its logistics operations, as high driver wages that can exceed $100,000-$150,000 have made going robotic preferable. The company also plans on making at least 40 percent of its fleet driverless by 2025 -- a staggeringly rapid shift. Furthermore, considering the efficiency gains and the high capital cost of autonomous systems, it seems reasonable to think that the commercial sector -- not personal consumers -- will be the first major adopters of the technology.

But why would unionized teamsters let their livelihoods go without a fight? The International Brotherhood of Teamsters is one of the largest and most powerful private sector unions left in the United States. With more than 1.3 million members, they have the resources and the allies to engage in an extremely bruising fight against driverless vehicles that could buy years of delay. It’s possible to predict what sort of approach they might take. Arguments could be advanced under the guise of safety and security, not the more controversial angle of labor security. They will say that it is too dangerous to let these trucks move without a human to stop a potential accident, or that the risk of cyber-terror necessitates someone capable of a manual override. Whatever the arguments turn out to be, there shouldn’t be any serious doubt that opposition will crop up, and its real goal will be labor security at the cost of technological progress.

No one wants to see people being driven out of work, but we cannot let progress be hijacked by fear. When the first industrial revolution was in full swing, it was opposed by a rising group of disaffected craftsman and workers who were displaced by the advent of machinery and factories. They were called the Luddites. At the time there was no way to predict what would happen to these workers or how they would fit back into our economic and social fabric. Yet we did not give in to their demands, we did not smash the looms or close the factories, and civilization is better off today because of it. Likewise, as forces gather to obstruct or oppose new technologies in defense of their livelihoods, it is important that we recognize the threat for what it is: an assault on progress.

Joshua Jacobs is a founding member of the Conservative Future Project

 

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