In the minds of some movers and shakers in the automobile industry, self-driving cars are the wave of the future. For investors and big business, the safe bet is that laissez-faire policies will win the day. But for consumers and workers, that very well may lead to unsafe and unstable futures.
And now politicians on Capitol Hill — in a rare act of bipartisanship — have passed legislation that threatens the safety of millions of motorists on U.S. roads and highways by stripping away state consumer protection regulation.
On Wednesday, the House of Representatives passed by unanimous voice vote the Self Drive Act. This bill would permit companies developing autonomous vehicles to apply for exemptions from state and federal regulations that govern the cars’ safety and design. The Senate must pass its own version of the bill for the legislation to proceed forward.
The House legislation’s goal is to speed up the development of autonomous vehicles. But it seeks to accomplish that goal by pre-empting state consumer safety laws and removing other legal barriers designed to protect motorists. Since federal safety rules in this area are all but nonexistent, there is reason to be worried.
Next week, the Transportation Department reportedly is set to announce new guidelines for self-driving cars. This comes in the context of the Trump administration’s well-documented hostility to regulation. In fact, the president has yet to nominate a new administrator to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation, created under President Barack Obama, has not met since President Donald Trump took office.
Issued one year ago, NHTSA’s current guidelines state that autonomous vehicles should record all collision-relevant information, maintain cybersecurity, protect vehicle occupants in the event of crashes and be free of all unreasonable safety risks. But these are suggestions, not rules or laws.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, long seen as being friendly to business, may go even further in giving leeway to automakers. With Congress potentially putting private enterprise ahead of consumer safety, it’s unlikely Chao will step into the void. In fact, her stewardship of the Labor Department under President George W. Bush was criticized by those in labor union circles for what they saw as inadequate protection of workers.
Perhaps signaling that the federal government will lead from behind on this issue, earlier this year Chao called on Silicon Valley, Detroit and other automaker hubs to “help educate a skeptical public about the benefits of automated technologies.”
Meanwhile the threat of autonomous vehicles to U.S. workers has not gone unabated. The House bill left out provisions for commercial trucks, earning the praise of the Teamsters Union. But the Senate Commerce Committee had a hearing concerning self-driving commercial trucks. Some senators want to include commercial trucks in the Senate’s bill.
It’s not hard to see why autonomous vehicles are a threat to the U.S. labor force. Last year, the Obama administration said between 1.3 million and 1.7 million trucking jobs are at risk from driverless vehicles. The automobile industry has estimated that up to 3 million U.S. jobs could be at risk from this technology.
Whatever the estimates, the potential consequences are serious: the elimination of one of the few remaining middle-class jobs that doesn’t require a college degree. Although Chao said she is “very, very concerned” about the impact of autonomous vehicles on trucking jobs, it’s difficult to imagine her—or any other political leaders inside the Beltway—taking forceful action on this issue.
Without strong federal leadership to protect consumers and educate the public, some vital questions may go unanswered during this critical stage. Will an autonomous vehicle be programmed to break the law—such as driving into the opposing lane—in order to avoid an accident or a double-parked car? Can these machines’ computers and algorithms be designed in such a way to deal with ethical questions?
Regardless, technology businesses and automobile companies are charging ahead.
Waymo, the car unit of Google parent Alphabet, saw its autonomous cars drive more than 635,000 miles on public roads in California in the year that ended on Nov. 30, 2016, according to a report by that state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. On average, autonomous Waymo cars drove a staggering 5,127 miles before a human driver had to take over, far more than its competitors.
General Motors has backed ride-hailing firm Lyft, who is partnering with Waymo in order to advance self-driving technology. Analysts are bullish, with Morgan Stanley estimating that Waymo could be worth more than $70 billion by 2030.
Waymo’s competitors are getting into the act as well. Last year, Uber purchased Otto, a San Francisco-based startup that retrofits semitrucks to make them capable of driving themselves. It’s already having an impact. In October 2016, an autonomous 18-wheeler carried 50,000 cans of Budweiser to Colorado. Embark, a San Mateo, California-based startup, has self-driving big rigs that it’s testing in Nevada.
Other major automakers such as Toyota, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Tesla also have gotten into the autonomous vehicle act.
Although these companies say they worry about a patchwork of self-driving regulation emerging among the 50 states, the answer isn’t throwing out the rulebook. It’s creating strong, sane federal regulations that will keep consumers safe.
If Google, Uber, Ford and other companies want to use public roads to practice using their new self-driving cars, they shouldn’t put consumers’ lives—and livelihoods—at risk.