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The driverless revolution may exact a political price

Evan Halper, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in Automotive News

"We understand how beneficial this technology can be, but we also understand that if we screw this up, human lives will be lost," said Jackie Gillan, head of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "We are at a time when there are already record recalls of vehicles because of safety defects. Why are we trusting these companies to do the right thing?"

Lobbying from the Teamsters succeeded in stripping commercial vehicles from the rapidly advancing congressional action. Automated commercial trucks would not get the exemptions to state and many federal rules as robot cars would in the legislation.

The concession -- heralded as a big victory by the Teamsters -- was met with a shrug by many in the automation world. They don't expect it to slow the arrival of fleets of self-driving trucks on the road. The momentum is already there, they say, and agency regulators are working with the companies to get their prototypes highway-ready.

"It was a political sign that there is fear" about the impact of the trucks, said Bryant Walker Smith, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who researches vehicle automation. "But it is not in the long term going to hamper their deployment."

How soon the potential for economic disruption spills over into politics is a matter of debate among technologists and futurists. But they agree it will be much sooner than Mnuchin predicts, and possibly as soon as 2020, when Trump would be up for re-election.

Trump claimed a bigger share of the labor vote than any Republican since Ronald Reagan, winning 43 percent of it nationwide, exit polls show. In Ohio, he beat Hillary Clinton commandingly in union households.

 

Hanging onto those votes is not as simple as tapping the brakes on driverless technology. Such a move would have its own economic fallout, as companies developing the vehicles could merely move abroad.

But if the White House and Congress don't start addressing the disruption that self-driving vehicles and related automation will cause, economists and political scientists warn Washington may one day face the kind of voter backlash seen in the 2016 election. So far, the government is showing itself just as disconnected as it was to the troubles created for the same voters by globalization.

"Regardless of whether this creates a world where everyone has jobs or few people do, those jobs will be different," Smith said. "Congress is not effectively discussing this. We don't sufficiently understand this disruption."

At a California startup called Embark, there already are indications of how trucking jobs are about to change. The company has in recent weeks started test-runs in which it is using self-driving trucks to ship smart refrigerators from a warehouse in Texas to a distribution center in Palm Springs. There is a driver in the cab, but for the bulk of the ride, when the truck is on the 10 Freeway, that person is not doing the driving. Eventually, there could be nobody in the cab for legs of the trip.

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