Self-Driving Truck Feud Shows Tech’s Vulnerability in Jobs Debate

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By Michaela Ross

A Senate effort to regulate self-driving trucks is spotlighting larger concerns about the impact of artificial intelligence technologies on an array of traditional jobs.

Unions have argued that including language on trucks in a larger autonomous vehicles bill could lead to truck drivers being thrown out of work if tractor trailers and other heavy trucks can roll down U.S. highways with no one at the wheel. That argument has hung up the draft bill in the Senate since July, while lawmakers try to agree about whether to include a provision on commercial vehicles.

The overall aim of the legislation is to speed up the regulation and rollout of self-driving vehicles being developed by companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Daimler AG.

The debate is a high-profile example of what’s likely to be a series of policy fights influenced by the brewing controversy around whether to regulate new technologies to guard against job displacement.

Thirty-eight percent of U.S jobs could be at high risk of automation by the early 2030s, according to a March report from professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP. The tech industry will need sharpen its ability to counter opponents who say that new technology must be curbed to preserve U.S. jobs—or face a possible series of regulatory and legislative setbacks and defeats as artificial intelligence (AI) uses grow, tech trade groups, attorneys and academics told Bloomberg BNA.

“The tech industry has to be very assertive in fighting that and laying out a positive alternative that will make people feel optimistic and ease people’s fears, and they haven’t really done that by and large,” Robert Atkinson, founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a non-profit technology think tank, told Bloomberg BNA.

The AI technologies that power autonomous cars and trucks are being implemented across an array of industries, sparking fears that technology will make some jobs obsolete. Tech companies and other self-driving vehicle proponents have had a tough time convincing Senate lawmakers that safety and mobility advantages to self-driving trucks should outweigh those fears.

Caught Flat-Footed

Pushback on technologies that take human jobs is nothing new. Workers rallied against past inventions like weaving machines and the assembly line. But the convergence of rapidly developing AI technologies across multiple industries threatens to displace a higher percentage of workers at a more rapid pace than in the past, Vivek Wadhwa, a distinguished fellow at Carnegie Mellon University who specializes in disruptive technology and public policy, told Bloomberg BNA.

Self-driving vehicles are the most tangible case yet for AI’s potential for job loss, but it is catching the tech industry flat-footed, Wadhwa said. The introduction of self-driving vehicles could impact more than 15 million U.S. workers—or one in nine workers—to varying degrees, according to an August report from the U.S. Department of Commerce. More than 3.5 million Americans work as truck drivers, according to American Trucking Associations data.

Tech company arguments hailing the life-saving potential of the technology and its ability to increase mobility for underserved populations, such as senior citizens, disabled and blind people, have not been able to silence job displacement concerns from lawmakers.

In 2015, 4,067 fatalities were caused by large truck crashes on U.S. roads, according to data from the National Safety Council. The council estimated a total of 40,200 people died in U.S. crashes in 2016. Ninety-four percent of crashes are caused by human error, according to data from the Department of Transportation. Self-driving car proponents point to such statistics when arguing for policies to foster the technology.

“If commercial vehicles are not included in this bill, it would be a clear example of policy being driven by the fear of mass unemployment—an issue that can be ameliorated with proper governmental response and action—rather than the life-saving capabilities of these vehicles,” Elliot Katz, chair of McGuireWoods LLP’s connected and automated vehicle practice, told Bloomberg BNA.

Still, Wadhwa, trade groups, and tech attorneys are concerned that tech companies and entrepreneurs are not ready to address the larger concern that AI uses will grow at the expense of human jobs. Silicon Valley culture is more focused on product development and venture capital than regulation and job impact concerns, Wadhwa said.

“On the jobs question, they’re in denial,” Wadhwa said, referring to companies in Silicon Valley. “They’re well aware of the impact of the technology, but they’re pretending it won’t happen or that they will create new jobs or there will be universal basic income.”

Counternarrative Needed

Tech companies could address the issue by hosting public conversations about the topic, assessing what skills will be needed to develop and operate new technologies, sponsoring worker re-training and apprenticeship programs, and conducting more research on how their technologies may both create and eliminate jobs, tech trade groups, attorneys and academics said. ITIF, for example, estimates only 8 percent of U.S. workers are at high risk of job automation.

They also need to develop stronger messages about how the safety and mobility benefits of their technologies outweigh potential job losses, Marc Scribner, a fellow at the free enterprise non-profit Competitive Enterprise Institute, told Bloomberg BNA.

The lack of such arguments could hurt tech companies globally. In August, India’s transportation minister said the country would not allow self-driving vehicles because of unemployment rates.

Semi Slow Down

Autonomous trucking technology would be curtailed in the U.S. if tech companies and proponents lose the battle to include commercial vehicles in the Senate’s legislation, groups said.

Self-driving trucking companies like Uber and Daimler could still continue to develop the technology, but would be limited to testing in U.S. states that allow for commercial autonomous vehicles. That will drive industry efforts overseas to countries with fewer regulatory obstacles, Atkinson said.

Autonomous trucking companies could still apply through the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to operate a limited number of vehicles on U.S. roads, but it would be far fewer than the maximum cap of 100,000 that the Senate’s bill now sets for passenger vehicles.

Fewer trucks on the road means less data being collected to feed into trucking’s AI systems and improve performance. That means safer autonomous commercial vehicle technology will develop more slowly, and delay potentially life-saving benefits, Katz said.

It also makes developing autonomous trucking technology less appealing to companies that want to deploy large numbers of trucks to ensure a return on investment.

Industry players and unions will be watching for a revised version of the Senate autonomous vehicle bill in the coming days to see if language on commercial vehicles is included. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who is helping to lead the effort, told Bloomberg BNA Sept. 19 he expected the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee to markup the bill as early as Oct. 4.

- With assistance from Shaun Courtney

To contact the reporter on this story: Michaela Ross in Washington at mross@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Keith Perine at kperine@bna.com

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