Driverless cars spark fears of job losses

Keith Laing
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The top ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate committee that oversees funding for the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development raised questions on Wednesday about the possibility of self-driving cars eliminating blue-collar driving jobs.

Otto, a San Francisco startup co-founded by former Google employees, is convinced autonomous big rigs will be the next big thing on the road to a safer transportation system.

“Self-driving cars and trucks will certainly demand new kinds of jobs and skills, but these jobs may be in different sectors of the economy,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee on Wednesday.

“For millions of Americans, particular those without a college degree or advanced training, driving a bus, a cab or a truck can provide a decent income. In fact for many, it is a ticket to the middle class,” he continued. “All these are in a space where they could be replaced by an autonomous vehicle, so we have to make sure this technology not only enables better productivity, but it doesn’t disqualify millions of Americans from good, solid jobs.”

The comments came during a hearing on Wednesday that saw U.S. senators debate both the ethical and economic impact of self-driving cars as federal regulators have pushed to develop new rules for autonomous vehicle testing.

Republicans on the panel focused on the potential safety benefits and mobility improvements that self-driving cars could bring as they pushed for regulators to resist over-regulating companies that are working on technologies that could be used to foster the development of autonomous vehicles.

“A self-driving car, or even one with limited automated features, could help seniors feel more comfortable driving at night and could help those who currently must rely on others to get around to maintain their independence,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is chairwoman of the panel.

The Maine Republican said federal and state regulators should strive “to take a balanced approach in allowing the research, development, safe testing, and deployment of automated vehicles.

“We must recognize that automated vehicle technology is advancing faster than government agencies can act, and in this instance, impeding the advancement of technology may prevent us from saving lives,” she said.

Outgoing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind touted new rules that have been crafted by President Barack Obama’s administration that call for automakers and technology companies to voluntarily report on testing and safety of autonomous cars to federal regulators before the cars are sold to the public.

The Transportation Department’s proposed self-driving rules focus on a set of 15 guidelines for automakers and technology companies. Before self-driving cars are allowed on U.S. roads, automakers would be required to report how they were tested, how the systems work and what happens if those systems fail.

At least one prominent auto industry lobbyist has predicted that President-elect Donald Trump will keep the self-driving rules in place when he takes office.

“Our approach is not prescriptive. It does not tell developers how they must provide safety, but instead it builds a transparent and proactive approach to ensure that they are properly addressing the critical safety areas,” Rosekind said.

Deborah Hersman, president and chief executive officer of the National Safety Council and a former chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the potential safety benefits of self-driving cars are too big to ignore, although she admitted “it will be a long time before highly automated vehicles replace our current fleet.

“NSC fully believes automated vehicles have the potential to save lives and prevent injuries,” she said. “If safety for the traveling public is the ultimate goal, advanced technology provides the most promising opportunity to achieve that outcome, and will go a long way towards eliminating preventable deaths in our lifetime.”

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing