When Vehicles are Automated, What Happens to their Drivers?

Jonathan Judd Oct 31, 2017

Back in October of 2013, when self-driving cars or “automated driving systems” (ADS) still seemed like a pipedream, reporter Patrick Lin of the Atlantic considered the “ethics of autonomous cars.”

Lin discussed the implications of a computer system faced with the minutia of split-second decisions a human driver makes daily while navigating to his or her destination. Humans often bend the rules of the road in order to maintain the fragile order of traffic. Lin sites the scenario of an oncoming tree branch in the lane of a two-way thoroughfare. Would an automated system know to momentarily suspend the legality of the double yellow lines to prevent an abrupt stop of traffic and perhaps a deadly collision?

Ultimately, Lin arrives at the infamous “trolley-problem,” a classic, if cliche, exercise in the philosophy of ethics. Getting to the heart of the issue, he asks how a self-driving vehicle would handle a complex situation where multiple lives of pedestrians and/or vehicle occupants could be simultaneously put at risk.

Now, due to cut-throat corporate competition among tech giants like Google, Uber and Tesla, the revolutionary development of fully functioning ADS technology is nearly upon us. We face a very different and more pertinent ethical challenge: What will be the impact of ADS technology on the masses of Americans who earn a living as professional drivers? This is a question that remains frustratingly under-discussed as we all envision an advanced future of robotic vehicles.

The fetishization of driverless cars has thoroughly obfuscated the crisis such automation would cause if implemented in the transportation and shipping services industry.

The U.K. Guardian, reporting in June of last year, explored what the development of self-driving trucks would mean to America’s 3.5 million truckers. The reality is bleak. Millions would lose the full-time employment that they depend on to survive in a market where their labor is consistently undervalued. “But trucking is just the tip of the iceberg,” the paper noted. “We’re seeing automation of labor across every industry, including manufacturing, wealth management and medicine. GDP is rising but no longer producing wage growth. We’re heading towards mass unemployment at the hands of technology.”

The fetishization of driverless cars has thoroughly obfuscated the crisis such automation would cause if implemented in the transportation and shipping services industry.

Corporations have always sought to streamline production in order to further enhance their precipitous accumulation of capital, reinforcing the upward stratification of wealth. It is no surprise then that every labor position that can be automated will one day be automated. Little stands in the way of ADS technology, save for pesky regulations. 

“Today, entities seeking to imminently test and deploy automated vehicles in the United States are confronted with a complicated regulatory landscape created by federal inaction and a patchwork of individual state policies,” the National Law Review reported in September.

But Washington is smoothing out the terrain. With lobbyists from Ford Motors, Tesla, Alphabet, Lyft and other tech and automobile giants at the table, they are in the process of formulating legislation to govern the use of driverless vehicles and further facilitate their rapid integration into the transportation and service industry economies.  

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved legislation on Oct. 4 exempting automakers from safety requirements mandating humans rest at the helm of automobiles.

The legislation, which will head to the wider Senate for a vote, “underscores the bipartisan desire to move ahead with self-driving vehicle technology,” Senator John Thune (R-S.D.), the Commerce Committee’s chair, told Reuters. “The safety and economic benefits of self-driving vehicles are too critical to delay.”

A similar piece of legislation, the “Self Drive Act,” passed through the House with cross-party support in September.

That same month, President Trump’s Secretary of Transportation, Elaine Chao, issued a new guidance document for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Its stated aim: to make the “regulatory processes more nimble to help match the pace of private sector innovation.”

States should not place “unnecessary burdens on competition and innovation” by restricting ADS development to established automakers, Chao wrote. The guidelines are voluntary but nonetheless, offered clarity in terms of how the federal government would like to see the technology develope within a regulatory framework that has yet to materialize. A General Motors spokesperson praised the guidelines as “clear, streamlined, and flexible.”

Transportation unions, among the strongest within organized labor, are not taking these developments lightly.

Driverless vehicles “are likely to cause massive job dislocation and impact worker safety,” Larry Willis, president of the 32-union AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Division, told Bloomberg News. James P. Hoffa, representing the 1.4 million-member International Brotherhood of Teamsters, complained that “if anyone needs to be at the table for a discussion on self-driving technology, it’s the package car driver, the long-haul truck driver and the taxi driver.”

We in the United States might learn something from India, where Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari has vowed to prohibit self-driving vehicles. “In a country where you have unemployment, you can’t have a technology that ends up taking people’s jobs,” he told the Hindustan Times. And yet the overriding force of private interests in the United States is pushing millions of workers towards a whirlwind of economic instability, pitting automation against employment.

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Photo credit: TruckPR/Flickr.

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