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Driverless Cars Legislation Passes with Few Concerns for Mass Labor Displacement

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A bill that would open US roadways to hundreds of thousands of automated vehicles over the next half decade passed the House of Representatives on Tuesday. Almost entirely absent from consideration were the hundreds of thousands of human drivers who stand to be replaced by the burgeoning robotic fleet.

Lawmakers unanimously approved of the Self Drive Act, which exempts driverless car manufacturers from certain safety regulations–like requirements forcing vehicles to have steering wheels and pedals. The bill also permits car makers to deploy 25,000 driverless cars on streets in the first year, and then up to 100,000 vehicles annually two years later.

The measure still needs to be taken up in the Senate before it can be signed into law. But it was approved in a non-controversial, bipartisan voice vote, despite well-documented concerns about the effect of automation on the labor market, particularly for professional drivers.

Before the legislation passed out of committee in July, the Teamsters, representing nearly 1.5 million truckers, did succeed in excluding commercial trucking from the legislation.

The union’s President James P. Hoffa said at the time that the Teamsters “commend the committee and members of Congress for recognizing that a starting point for any discussion on this subject was that no legislation should impact commercial motor vehicles or traditional commercial drivers.”

But left unprotected by the Teamsters arrangement are hundreds of thousands of non-commercial truck drivers. Uber, which has already begun experimenting with driverless cars in cities like Pittsburgh and San Francisco, boasts a human driver force of more than 300,000. It’s competitor, Lyft, has over 100,000 drivers. And there are more than 200,000 traditional taxi cab drivers around the US. Should the Self Drive Act pass the Senate, all those drivers would face new competition in the transportation labor market against entities that don’t require wages or benefits.

In a statement after the vote, Larry I. Willis, the president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department said: “Adequately addressing the impact driverless vehicles will have on jobs, wages and safety will require more deliberation and public input from all stakeholders, including transportation labor,”

Even the Teamsters carve-out may not hold when the measure is taken up in the Senate. The upper chamber has yet to publicly release their version of the bill. CNBC reported, however, that a hearing scheduled next week in the Senate Commerce Committee will examine the issue of automating the trucking industry.

The chairman of the panel, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) noted that: “Self-driving technology for trucks and other large vehicles has emerged as a pivotal issue in Congress attempt to help usher in a new era of transportation.”

In the House, lawmakers praised the passage of the bill, framing it as a victory for traffic safety.

“Self-driving cars have the potential in the future to reduce deaths and injuries from car crashes, particularly those that result from driver distraction,” Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said on Wednesday.

Uber, Google, and Tesla are among the company leaders researching, developing, and lobbying for driverless automobiles.

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Sam Sacks worked on the Hill as a Congressional staffer, and as a writer and reporter since 2008. He’s been published in Hustler Magazine, which you may have seen but don’t want to admit.

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