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.
Subscribers are probably more than familiar with our refrain that technological innovation is changing the world but it is also worth considering regulation represents the framework in which all businesses perform. This is why companies spend so much time lobbying. If they can bend rules to their favour or limit the abilities of others to compete the effort is worth it. Unions think along exactly the same lines, as they attempt to protect the interests of their members even if that curtails the roll out of innovative solutions.
Road death is one of the leading causes of mortality in the developed world. That’s a powerful reason to come up with regulations for autonomous vehicles even if it puts teamsters out of a job. The other point is that the teamster union has historically been one of the most aggressive in strike action and pay demands so it is facing an uphill battle from corporations seeking to displace it. At best it can hope to delay the rollout of this technology not least because it has big backers of its own.
The USA is currently talking about regulating autonomous vehicles but there are glaringly obvious sectors that could be easily automated which are also protected by regulation. The insurance sector, where one has to literally speak to a broker to get an auto policy is a case in point. That step is totally unnecessary and has already been dispensed with in Europe. Cheque books and ATM fees are another idiosyncrasy of the US market which could easily be dispensed with and a wholesale migration to blockchain would not be required to deliver better service.
These examples help to illustrate how constricting regulation is but also that legacy investments in infrastructure can hang around for much longer than anyone ever thought possible.
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