A dais stuffed with well-fed lawmakers sure doesn’t look like a battlefield, but make no mistake: The long-awaited war between self-driving vehicles and the humans they would replace has begun. And the humans just won the first skirmish.
Thursday morning, the Senate released the first version of autonomous vehicle legislation meant to clarify who exactly is in charge of robocar regulations. (The bill, like its companion passed this summer in the House, would put most of the vehicle design oversight in the hands of the federal government.) It comes a few weeks after senators circulated a draft of the rules, and contains a significant difference from the older version: The Senate deleted the original mention of commercial motor vehicles like trucks and buses. Now big vehicles are exempt from the bill—meaning that rules for self-driving trucks are still unclear.
It’s a small but noteworthy loss for the burgeoning self-driving trucking industry and the innovators therein, like Uber, Tesla, and Amazon, which have all lobbied for clear national rules governing the autonomous big rigs they want to build, sell, or use. And it’s an early win for the labor unions, whose influence in Washington has taken a precipitous dive since the 1980s, and more specifically for the Teamsters, which represents almost 600,000 truck drivers nationally and had asked legislators to keep their commercial vehicles out of the discussion, at least for the time being.
“The issues facing autonomous commercial trucks are fundamentally different, and potentially more calamitous, than those facing passenger cars, and warrant their own careful consideration,” Teamsters rep Ken Hall told the Senate during a hearing on autonomous trucks earlier this month.
It makes sense that trucking is the focal point of nascent AV regulation. From a technological perspective, implementing self-driving in trucks is easier than self-driving personal cars, or even self-driving taxis. Big rigs primarily operate on highways with long, straight stretches and (mostly) clear lane markers and signs. (City driving, by contrast, includes more mercurial creatures: cyclists, pedestrians, traffic lights.) Autonomy offers clear safety benefits, because trucks are overrepresented in road fatalities, and kill about 4,000 people a year on US roads. The economic case is also obvious: Trucking is a $676 billion industry in the US. Shipping faster, more efficiently, and without paying a human driver could only make it more profitable.
Self-driving trucks are an inevitability. Witness this big rig driver flip on robo-mode and clamber into the back seat during a demonstration last year. “It should be much quicker for commercial autonomous vehicles to be in the market as real products that are generating revenue and building real businesses,” says Stefan Steltz-Axmacher, the founder of truck tech company Starsky Robotics.
But the prospect of robot trucks raises questions. Are they safe? Are they cybersecure? And, critically, will they strip 3.4 million American truck drivers of a living wage? Trucking is the most popular occupation in at least 20 states, a rare job that pays decently (about $41,000 a year on average) without requiring a college diploma.
When Computers Drive the Trucks
In one sense, the outcome of this first legislative tussle doesn’t matter much, because it’s unclear how robotrucks will work, or how many jobs they can really swipe. There are myriad possibilities.
The startup Peloton is working on “platooning” trucks, or groups of vehicles that communicate via a wireless connection that helps them time their movements. At some point soon, the system might let a lead driver take over the steering for a bit, while those at the wheels in the vehicles behind could snooze, catch up on paperwork, meditate, whatever. California-based Embark would like to see driver-monitored trucks pilot themselves on interstates but be manually driven into warehouses by nimbler humans. Starsky Robotics has a similar vision, but says that the trickier driving maneuvers could be done by a human in a remote location, Predator drone-style. It’s unclear if any of these companies want—or will be able—to ever take the human out of the picture entirely.
“We continue to believe that the automated technologies being developed today will assist drivers, improving safety and productivity, and that the job of truck driver will be with us for the foreseeable future,” Chris Spear, the president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, told the Senate this month.
The Teamsters are skeptical anyway. “It’s not just job loss. It’s also what happens to the working conditions of the person who remains in the cab,” says Sam Loesche, a legislative representative for the union. “How do we protect the livelihood of the driver who may be pushed to operate on a 24-hour continual basis because the company is claiming he’s in the back of a cab?” Even if automation doesn’t eliminate the need for a human, it could make that human’s job even less fun
It may be more correct to say the Teamsters didn’t so much win this fight as prolong it. At some point, the tech will be ready, and some proponents will want to use it to put humans out of work. And after they come for the truckers, they’ll come for the taxi drivers, the chauffeurs, the valet parkers, the gas station attendants, and perhaps anyone else whose job depends on people driving their own cars. (The AV revolution should gin up plenty of new jobs, but a bird in the hand, you know?)
Still, it’s a victory. In a reversal of conventional wisdom, the trucking industry wants the government to amp up regulations. Federal rules would supersede today’s patchwork, where rules change from one state to another, and crossing a border—as trucks are wont to do—means extra reams of paperwork.
“A lot of state regulators are looking to the federal government for guidance,” says Steltz-Axmacher. The lack of clarity for self-driving trucks makes it harder to raise money, and a federal law that doesn’t address commercial motor vehicle provisions could “meaningfully slow progress.”
“Creating two separate tracks for cars and trucks creates uncertainty, and if technology can prove to be safe and save lives, it should be on the roads regardless of the use case or vehicle type,” says Jonny Morris, who heads up policy for Embark.
For these companies and their big tech allies, it’s not too late. The Senate bill is far from finalized: It gets discussed by the Senate Commerce Committee next week, then voted on the Senate floor, then squished together with the House’s own autonomous vehicle legislation, which also omits commercial vehicles. But if you think navigating city streets in a robot car is complicated, watch this legislative process.