If Trump really wants to save U.S. jobs …

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Updated Nov 30, 2017


slow down federal encouragement of / funding for autonomous vehicle research . That is, at least, the point of view offered in this column by Paul Harasim of the Las Vegas Review Journal. Published last month, Harasim’s argument drew heavily on an interview with Texas-based trucker Jerry Jackson, and came amid reports about the increasing speed at which vehicle automation seems to be coming. The disconnect between truckers’ expected timeline for such technology’s commercial viability and the view of tech wizards in Silicon Valley and elsewhere made National Public Radio in October. (The online version was headed up by a picture of one of the retrofit Otto Volvos.) Our blogger Wendy Parker referenced another report about said disconnect, published more recently at the Quartz website.

More recently, this report about similar disconnects in other sectors showed one Silicon Valley company experimenting with a Universal Basic Income (UBI is Social Security for all, all the time, essentially) concept to test the feasibility of such given the displacement of work opportunities of a variety of kinds that technological automation could result (and is resulting, in some cases) in. The key concern: “What if we’re entering an automated future where there won’t be enough jobs for the people who need them? If this happens, how will people pay for food and shelter?” asked reporter Queena Kim.

In Kim’s report, the pilot project of sorts in UBI is detailed as the brainchild of “tech accelerator” Y Combinator, which will for a time deliver a guaranteed sum to a certain number of residents and track what happens in their lives following.

Another test of such a system — in this case for unemployed workers and packaged as welfare reform of a sort — is in place in Finland. It’s also under discussion in left-of-center circles in the United States and around the world. The central tension (whether technological progress will ultimately create as many or more work opportunities than it will displace, or not) we’ve hit on in past reporting on the increasing automation truckers can expect as heavy vehicles develop over the next decades.

To date, the Department of Transportation has more or less encouraged vehicle automation. Note a recent model guidance situated around the regulatory framework for manufacturers of so-called “highly automated vehicles” (HAVs). It expressed an explicit purpose to “speed the delivery of an initial regulatory framework and best practices to guide manufacturers and other entities in the safe design, development, testing, and deployment of” such vehicles.

A regulatory framework around the testing and certification of the safety of such vehicles can certainly be seen as a good thing for those who will ultimately be sharing the road with them (see the issues with Tesla’s Autopilot function from last year for some evidence for that). Yet it could also create the conditions that indeed speed automation’s arrival to the mainstream of transportation. For what it’s worth, what DOT’s hopeful of, ultimately, they say: better safety to come along with greater automation in driving tasks.

As President Obama, writing in the Pittsburg Post-Gazette the week after Uber’s test-run of semi-autonomous cars in that city began, cast the situation of the administration’s then-recently-proposed guidance: “There are always those who argue that government should stay out of free enterprise entirely, but I think most Americans would agree we still need rules to keep our air and water clean, and our food and medicine safe. That’s the general principle here. What’s more, the quickest way to slam the brakes on innovation is for the public to lose confidence in the safety of new technologies.”

As regards four-wheeled automobiles, as has been suggested by some truckers, maybe automation could deliver better highway safety at some point. But, of course, displacement of workers will no doubt occur if a truly driverless four-wheeler emerges as a standard. And if such a standard emerges for heavy trucks, or for the robots following a human-piloted truck in a platooned convoy ….

“If he (Trump) cares about the working man, he’ll stop this talk about driverless trucks.” –Trucker Jerry Jackson in Paul Harasim’s Las Vegas Review-Journal editorial.

Harasim’s editorial emerged in the wake of the announcement that the Carrier Corporation was walking back some of its plans to move jobs from Indiana to Mexico, a move that followed conversations with President-Elect Trump and his transition team. Harasim calls that a good start for the president-elect, but argues that much more could be done. To wit, the incoming Trump administration, he says, could protect millions of truckers’ jobs (for an uncertain amount of time, however) by refusing “to set nationwide rules through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for autonomous vehicles on U.S. highways.”

Meantime, the march toward greater automation continues. Whatever Trump does, it’s true the technological capabilities wrapped up in all this are fast developing, but I tend to agree with most truckers that there will be a driver behind the controls on most runs for quite a long time. At once, there are those within trucking who suggest autonomous big rigs will be become road reality even faster than their four-wheeled counterparts. Just last week, a press release from the American Transportation Research Institute highlighted a “hot topic” panel at the Transportation Research Board’s annual meeting in D.C., scheduled for this coming Monday, that would feature reps from the American Trucking Associations, Uber/Otto and others. Part of the description of the panel, which purports to separate autonomous vehicle myth from fact: “why autonomous trucks will likely evolve faster than autonomous cars.”

Within all of it, whatever happens in the future, there will be pros and cons for those who have a long future ahead of them in trucking, all of which will have to be reckoned with. For now, folks at companies developing the technology by and large speak less of work displacement than of opportunities for owner-operators within what they envision as the future fleet of semi-autonomous rigs. “We spoke with thousands of owner-operators,” Lior Ron of Otto told me last summer, for instance, “when we launched. … We kept hearing the same challenges – they want to move more safely on the road, and they don’t want to make a trade-off between being safe and profitability.”

Ron, at least, pitches his company’s retrofit technology to turn existing rigs into more autonomously driven machines as one that will ultimately help operators avoid making any such trade-offs. The Uber Freight automated brokerage project, whose basic website is live today, launched in early October, will be something of a companion, Ron said last summer. “Once we have the [Otto] kits on trucks, we can help provide more information on where the truck is, we can plan the route better, we can help the driver drive more efficiently.”

Staying abreast of what’s new, what’s truly useful and beneficial (and what’s just not necessary) and what drivers of the future might stand to gain from the technology up ahead might be well advised. What’s your thought? (How long before autopilot function allows drivers the opportunity to catch a little shut-eye rolling down the road? I’ve heard from some who look forward to that day, assuming it ever comes. Many others fear the worst from such practices becoming standard, seeing little more than a slippery slope to “reducing labor costs.”)

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