Driverless Cars May Help Underserved but Leave Others Jobless

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By Stephanie Beasley

Nov. 16 — Congress should create incentives for auto manufacturers that prioritize underserved groups, like seniors and low-income communities, when introducing driverless car services, co-director of the RAND Center for Decision Making Under Uncertainty, Nidhi Kalra, said.

Some incentives policy makers could give car manufacturers include encouraging development of private-public partnerships to introduce autonomous vehicles into existing transit and paratransit services, Kalra said at a Senate transportation subpanel hearing Nov. 16. Another option would be to provide public assistance that would allow underserved populations to use autonomous vehicle services at discounted rates, she said.

Autonomous vehicles present an enormous opportunity to improve mobility for those who are not being served by the existing transportation system, and could provide significant social, health and economic benefits, Kalra said.

Subcommittee Chairman Susan Collins (R-Maine) also said driverless cars could have benefits for older drivers, especially those whose vision has deteriorated to such a state that they can no longer legally drive.

Existing Partnerships Possible Path

Several car makers have announced plans to partner with ridesharing companies and use their services as the entry point to bring new autonomous vehicle models to market. General Motors Corp., for example, has been working with Lyft Inc. to roll out its driverless cars, while Ford Motor Company acquired the San Francisco-based Chariot shuttle service for the same purpose. Uber introduced its first self-driving fleet in Pittsburgh in September.

“The developers like Uber and Lyft are already trying to work with transportation agencies, and transit agencies are trying to integrate sharing services with their transit services,” Kalra told Bloomberg BNA. “They’re not at odds with each other.”

“But sometimes the market case for bringing autonomous vehicles to rural areas or to make expensive design adjustments to accommodate, let’s say, Americans with particular kinds of disabilities, that signal might not be clear,” she added. “If we as a society want to prioritize that, then that might be a role for policymakers.”

Kalra said it was too soon to implement regulations but that policy makers could help foster a culture in which auto manufacturers and ridesharing services considered how driverless vehicles could potentially benefit underserved populations.

Effects on Employment, Safety

While driverless cars could help some communities, subcommittee ranking member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said he was concerned it also could leave many people without jobs.

For millions of Americans without a college degree or advanced training, becoming a professional driver can be their ticket to a decent income and the middle class, Reed said. They could all potentially be replaced by autonomous vehicles, he added.

“We have to make sure that this technology not only enables better productivity, but it doesn’t disqualify millions, literally, of Americans from good, solid jobs,” Reed said.

Yet, Paul Brubaker, president and CEO of Alliance for Transportation Innovation, warned policy makers against implementing any regulations that would constrain the development of the technology. He highlighted the fact that human errors were responsible for 90 percent of car accidents and said that the government should not be an obstacle to saving lives.

“To put a fine point on the subject, human drivers are simply killers,” he said. “Computers don’t get tired, they don’t text, they don’t drink and drive, and they don’t get road rage.”

The idea that autonomous vehicles could eventually displace taxi, bus and truck drivers is definitely a primary concern for Reed, a committee aide told Bloomberg BNA after the hearing. She said the transportation and housing subcommittee could pursue the issue in the next Congress but would wait for the Transportation Research Board to release findings on the topic in January.

That will help the committee identify which occupations are most at risk and which other federal agencies should be brought into the discussion, the aide said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington at sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bna.com

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