Waymo, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet, recently announced that it is running its autonomous vehicles in the Phoenix, Arizona area without any safety drivers, and that in the coming months it will launch the first driverless ride-hailing service. Waymo’s announcement has reignited discussions about driverless cars.
Yet during discussions about autonomous vehicles we shouldn't forget that driverless trucks, which have faced more opposition than driverless cars, could also change our lives for the better if they're included in efforts to speed up autonomous vehicle development.
Sadly, driverless trucks have been exempted from federal legislative attempts to remove barriers to driverless vehicle innovation. Both the House bill, which passed in September, and the Senate bill, which was approved by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation committee in October, do not include a framework for trucks. Because the House bill began in the Energy and Commerce committee, not the Transportation and Infrastructure committee, which oversees trucking, House members were able to avoid tackling the trucking issue head on. The House legislation notes that “commercial motor vehicles” (such as trucks) are not covered.
Anyone who has been following the driverless car debates is by now familiar with the safety statistics: according to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2015 estimate 94 percent of car accidents can be attributed to human error, and the National Safety Council found that last year there were 40,200 motor vehicle deaths. These are frightening figures, and driverless cars, which cannot get drunk, fall asleep, or get distracted, offer immense life-saving potential.
All this holds true for trucks. Driving trucks is one of the most dangerous jobs in the United States. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, in 2015 (the most recent year data is available) "Driver/sales workers and truck drivers" had a fatal work injury rate of 24.3 per 100,000 full time workers. This is much higher than the 3.4 rate for American workers as a whole.
The Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries also shows that of those working in "truck transportation" the fatal injuries attributed to "Roadway incidents involving motorized land vehicle" accounted for almost 72 percent of all fatal injuries.
This is hardly surprising. Truck drivers have to deal with hazards and work environments that don't affect most drivers. Unlike most of us, truckers regularly drive for long hours and sometimes carry hazardous materials.
Despite the dangers associated with trucking, labor groups have spoken out against including trucks in legislation seeking to create a flexible regulatory framework for driverless vehicles, fearing that autonomous vehicle technology will lead to job losses. In July, the president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Division said that autonomous vehicles “are likely to cause massive job dislocation.” Teamsters president James P. Hoffa issued a statement expressing a similar sentiment: “It is vital that Congress ensure that any new technology is used to make transportation safer and more effective, not used to put workers at risk on the job or destroy livelihoods.”
In the long term, driverless vehicles do pose a threat to truckers’ careers, but that shouldn't prevent lawmakers from allowing innovation in the trucking industry. Besides, It's unlikely that autonomous technology will spell the end of truckers any time soon. Last year, Uber's self-driving truck delivered 50,000 cans of beer after a trip in Colorado. A driver still had to be behind the wheel because the autonomous technology only worked on the highway. It's likely that truckers will be necessary to perform some tasks even as autonomous technology becomes a more common vehicle feature. After all, we don't have robots that can maintain trucks or load and unload cargo yet.
But even if in the long term driverless technology leads to the end of truckers that would be a good development. Trucking is a dangerous occupation, and we should welcome technology that saves lives.