WASHINGTON -- In its race to embrace driverless vehicles, Washington has cleared away regulatory hurdles for auto companies and brushed aside consumer warnings about the risk of crashes and hacking.
But at a recent hearing, lawmakers absorbed an economic argument that illustrated how the driverless revolution they are encouraging could backfire politically, particularly in Trump country.
It was the tale of a successful, long-distance beer run.
A robotic truck coasted driverless 120 miles down Interstate 25 in Colorado on its way to deliver 51,744 cans of Budweiser. Not everyone at the hearing was impressed by the milestone, particularly the secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters, whose nearly 600,000 unionized drivers played no small roll in President Donald Trump's victory last year.
Driverless vehicles threaten to dramatically reduce America's 1.7 million trucking jobs. It is the front end of a wave of automation that technologists and economists have been warning for years will come crashing down on America's political order. Some predict it could rival the impact of the economic globalization and the resulting off-shoring of jobs that propelled Trump's victory in the presidential election.
"This is one of the biggest policy changes of our generation," said Sam Loesche, head of government affairs for the Teamsters. "This is not just about looking after the health and welfare of America's workers, but also their livelihoods."
Washington isn't ready for it. The Trump White House already has indicated it sees it as some future administration's problem. Silicon Valley remains in shock over Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin's remark in the spring that economic fallout from this type of automation is 50 to 100 years off and "not even on my radar screen."
"I don't think anybody there is thinking about this seriously," said Martin Ford, author of "Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future." "They are still looking at this as futuristic and not having an impact and not politically toxic. ... Once people start seeing the vehicles on the roads and jobs disappearing because of them, things will quickly become very different."
The arrival of that reckoning is getting accelerated by Washington's bipartisan excitement for self-driving technology, one of the few policy issues advancing. New Trump administration regulations don't require industry to submit certain safety assessments, leaving it voluntary. And legislation -- already approved in the House and expected to pass in the Senate -- strips authority from states to set many of their own safety guidelines.
Objections raised by the National Governors Association and the National Council of State Legislatures don't seem to be slowing things down. Consumer groups are dismayed.