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Professional drivers fear job loss to robotic vehicles

AS REPORTED BY KEITH LAING FOR THE DETROIT NEWS

Washington — The prospect of self-driving cars, trucks and buses has sparked alarm about job losses among professional drivers, one of the largest employment sectors for those without a college education.

Auto manufacturers and tech companies have promised that self-driving cars will revolutionize mobility and boost safety on U.S. roads. And trucking companies have hailed the potential for increased cargo shipping efficiency.

What’s overlooked in those visions is the potential for the technology to eliminate well-paying jobs in both the commercial driving industry and drivers for ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft.

A May report from Goldman Sachs forecasts that the professional driving sector stands to lose 6.2 million jobs globally by 2030 due to the advent of fully autonomous vehicles.

Labor leaders have pushed Congress to pump the brakes on the rush to craft rules that would allow wide latitude to self-driving vehicles. They want protections for professional drivers.

“The impact that automation is going to have on the transportation workforce is real,” believes Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department. “There’s job issues and safety issues that need to considered before we move forward with this.”

Conventional wisdom holds that autonomous vehicle technology will be deployed first by ride-hailing companies. But John Krafcik, CEO of Google’s Waymo driverless-car division, believes long-haul trucks could come first.

“Ride-sharing makes a lot of sense for the world, because if you look at the personal car, right now it sits idly for 90 percent of the time,” Krafcik said this month at a conference in New York. “For goods transportation though, which could travel primarily on highways, there’s also a really interesting and compelling use-case there, too. So I think either of those two might be the first ones you see.”

Safety considerations

Norita Taylor, a spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents truck drivers who are not affiliated with large trucking companies, said self-driving trucks will require a different set of considerations than autonomous cars.

Taylor cited concerns about the size of trucks and the vulnerability of their sometimes hazardous cargo to potential hackers. “The most important, key safety ingredient you have to have in any safely operated vehicle is a trained, experienced driver,” she said.

Kara Deniz, press secretary of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters union, which counts 600,000 professional drivers among its membership, agreed.

“Trucks are not the same thing as passenger vehicles,” she said. “I drive a four-door. I wouldn’t presume I could go in and drive an 80,000-pound rig.”

The discussion about the potential for job losses among professional drivers comes as Congress crafts rules for self-driving vehicles. As it does so, tests are proceeding – like the Federal Highway Administration demonstration this month of a three-truck platoon of partially automated trucks using vehicle-to-vehicle technology to communicate about speed and space on a Virginia interstate.

The debate about whether legislation should allow self-driving commercial vehicles spilled over into a recent hearing of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“Including trucks in the conversation about automated vehicles is important as we seek to improve safety; it also puts our economy on a level playing field as other countries around the world deploy automated freight trucks,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who chairs the panel.

Critics on the panel countered that self-driving commercial vehicles will require a different set of safety considerations than passenger cars.

“In our discussions to date, we have not gotten as clear of an understanding on issues related to self-driving trucks as we have during our countless discussions on self-driving cars,” Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said at the hearing. “As a result, I am of the mind that highly automated trucks are not ripe for inclusion in this bill.”

Comparisons to pilots

Trucking companies have downplayed the potential for job losses. They draw parallels to commercial airline pilots who use autopilot when reaching cruising altitude, but take over for takeoffs and landings.

“Drivers aren’t there just to mash the pedals and turn the wheels,” said Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy for the American Trucking Associations, which represents large truck companies. “They’re there for cargo security and they are heavily regulated by the federal government.”

The ATA has pressed lawmakers to offer the same protections for self-driving truck operators that they are considering for autonomous cars. That includes the ability to apply for pre-emptions from federal rules that require human operators. Similarly, the group wants to prohibit states from blocking self-driving trucks within their borders.

Sullivan said automation has been used on commercial airline flights for years and pilots have not been put out of work. “We’ve had automated technology on airplanes for 50 years and we still have a pilot in the cockpit,” he said.

Peter Pantuso, president and CEO of the American Bus Association, offered a similar optimistic prognosis for commercial bus drivers, also drawing a parallel to the airline industry.

“I think a vehicle that has 50 to 60 people on board is one of the last vehicles that you will become fully automated,” he said. “Even then, you still have sort of a pilot sitting in the seat.”

The trucking association’s Sullivan blamed labor unions for Peters’ opposition to adding commercial vehicles to self-driving legislation.

“Gary Peters was working with us until unions told him not to,” he said. “It’s devolved into a partisan issue and I think truck drivers, whether they are unionized or not, are going to be worse off for it.”

A spokesperson for Peters said Thursday that the Bloomfield Township Democrat “thinks there needs to be further study on the potential impacts of self-driving trucks and that Congress must carefully consider their implications for future policy decisions.”

The AFL-CIO’s Willis said lawmakers should look beyond the technological benefits. “These are very serious economic issues, job issues and safety issues that we need to get right here,” he said.

He added: “We know these type of companies want to try to save money, and the labor component is one of the biggest drivers. There’s no question you will see it on the passenger side and you will also see it on the commercial side if policymakers allow it.”

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