Congress keeps self-driving big rigs in the slow lane (but for how long?)

August 1, 2017

There are certain things that most Americans agree on nowadays. For example: 

  • Global warming is real and is caused by human activities.  
  • Smoking and second-hand smoke are both harmful
  • Congress is a complete and utter crapfest

Another thing we accept: autonomous cars are coming, whether we like it or not. (And no, some folks do not like it at all.)

But just because we accept something as true doesn't mean we can't try to mitigate its effects. For example, many cities, states, and countries are doing their best to undo the damage caused by global warming. And in Washington, D.C., the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee recently approved legislation that would speed the development of self-driving cars, but not self-driving big rigs.

If the bill were to survive its journey through the House and Senate without being tabled, if it were to arrive on the president's desk in its current form, and if he were to sign it, the new law would prevent states from barring autonomous vehicles on public roads.

Those vehicles, however, would have to weigh in at less than 10,000 pounds. That would necessarily exclude large commercial trucks. 

The Teamsters union is generally happy with the way that the House bill was written, and it's hoping to ensure that a similar bill in the Senate has the same kind of language. That's not surprising: there are roughly 3.1 million truck drivers in the U.S. today, and nearly all of them are at risk of losing their jobs to autonomous vehicles. An additional 900,000 non-truck driving jobs would be at risk if the current House bill passes, including drivers for ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber. 

Our take

Ultimately, everyone from Lyft drivers to Teamsters will have to confront the realities of living in a world with autonomous vehicles. Many of us are excited by that technology and the possibilities it offers, including far lower fatality rates and insurance premiums. We have faith that workers of the world will adapt, just as they have in the face of previous innovations like automobiles, airplanes, and email. 

However, people are usually slower to change than technology. During this transitional phase, it's probably a smart idea to err on the side of caution and find a balance between innovation and employment. Maybe Congress isn't the complete crapfest it seems. 

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