The debate over autonomous vehicle legislation in the Senate is teaching us that the creators and potential users of robotics can be stymied when those affected don't see its benefits. This was underscored in a recent study by the Pew Research Center, its principal finding being that "the public generally expresses more worry than enthusiasm about emerging automation technologies—especially when it comes to jobs." Regarding autonomous vehicles, it said that despite the fascination more Americans would not want to ride in a driverless vehicle than would. What should be of great concern to AI developers is the finding that while few Americans think their own jobs are at risk, a stunning 85 percent favor limiting machines to performing primarily those jobs that are dangerous or unhealthy for humans.
The emotions Pew documents are playing out in the driverless vehicle legislation moving through Congress. Yes, there is bipartisan agreement that a national regulatory structure is needed so that these vehicles can operate seamlessly in all regions of the United States free from each state's discrete driving law. However, bipartisanship breaks down over the types of vehicles that would be permitted to operate under this new scheme.
The House-passed SELF DRIVE Act excludes any vehicle over 10,000 pounds despite industry pleas to the contrary and the logic of having a uniform national driving law for all autonomous vehicles on our roads and highways, something not only the manufacturers and users advocate but also the National Safety Council. For the promise to be realized, all vehicles need to be able to communicate and interact with one another digitally. That exclusion means any truck, bus, or heavy delivery van operating across state lines using any type of advanced robotics would be regulated by each state independently, a barrier that will create havoc for programmers and stifle progress in the field.
In the Senate, Sen. John Thune (R-ND), the Chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, is the lead sponsor of the AV START Act, a bill similar to the SELF DRIVE Act. He, along with several of his colleagues, believes that there should be no distinctions in the law: "It doesn't make sense to have two safety standards out there—one for trucks and one for cars." Powerful segments of organized labor disagree. At a hearing before the Commerce Committee in September, Ken Hall of the Teamsters admonished the panel that "the largest issue of them all" is the "potential impact on the livelihoods and wages of millions of your constituents." These words resonated, and the bill approved by the Thune's Committee for action by the full Senate retains the large vehicle exemption.
Still, the Senate hearing provided important lessons in how to deal with these objections and heal rifts. A key one came from Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, a Democrat on the Committee who is one of the lead co-sponsors of the bill, but only if it the 10,000 pound exclusion is retained. Michigan is home to manufacturers seeking to build autonomous cars and trucks, including Ford which has invested $1 billion in Argo-AI to develop driverless vehicle technology. The state's universities and workforce want to be at the forefront of the next-generation vehicle development and manufacturing. Sen. Peters, however, lectured the industry witnesses, "I didn't see in your testimony any data, studies, best practices or business plans that address how a company operating today is prepared to address a driver displacement."
That was a bit of a cheap shot. As both the CEOs of Navistar and the American Trucking Associations explained to the panel and wrote in their testimony, there already are driverless trucks in the U.S. Rigs are permanently parked because of the shortage of 50,000 drivers. If current trends continue, that number will double in the next five years. Moreover, the average age of an American trucker is 56, which means hundreds of thousands of drivers will be collecting Social Security long before the first autonomous trucks are commercially available. That in turn means driver shortages will need to be filled from the ranks of the Millennials. As one logistics expert wrestling with these staffing issues advocates, the best approach requires the industry to use technology to appeal to young tech geeks and vehicle lovers to demonstrate that the next generation of trucks need those with skills beyond just turning a steering wheel. However, making that appeal will be difficult if Congress continues to resist improvements in truck technology.
During the hearing, industry witnesses did paint a picture, albeit sketchy, of what the new world of trucking might look like. Drivers will be to trucks what pilots are to airplanes. Yes, airplanes today can take off, fly and land themselves autonomously, but pilots are still aboard to ensure their proper operation. Further, huge trucks driving through city streets without drivers is decades away. It's simply too difficult a task for any automated vehicle to attempt, the industry said. In addition, autonomous trucks need to have the capacity to pull off the road whenever a problem arises. Major highways have such shoulders, but most other roads don't. To utilize these shoulders, fully autonomous trucks would need to confine themselves to the right lane. Finally, there is a concept with AV trucks called platooning—one truck driven by an operator in the lead with others following closely behind under its control.
Put all that together along with difficulty the industry has finding long haul truckers, and a picture of the future emerges. It would be a world in which autonomous trucks trundle down highways at night in platoons when the roads are empty, going from one marshaling area or cross docking facility to another. In the morning, drivers who now sleep at home instead of in their cabs would take the rigs into more congested areas. And in this new world, those with the skills to operate the new technologies will be at a premium, creating new employment and income opportunities. At the same time, the growing shortage of drivers means that those not willing or able to master the new technology will still be needed to drive the trucks in non-autonomous mode.
As advanced robotics are rolled out, vivid pictures of each application's benefits are needed, ones that have the data, studies, best practices and business plans needed to convince people like Sen. Peters, Mr. Hall, and the Teamsters that the change is beneficial, not detrimental. For example, there was a recent article in the New York Times about a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who had developed are far more hygienic way to prepare salads. It uses a robotic process to minimize human contact because "salad bars are magnets for bacteria and viruses." However, Sally the Salad Robot was immediately subjected to the ire of local chefs and unions representing hotel and culinary workers, even though new jobs would be created servicing and operating the machine. There was considerable information on Sally's capabilities, too little on her benefits to society.
Perhaps the best advice for dealing with the fear of advanced automation comes from Senator Cory Gardner, a Colorado Democrat who sits on the Commerce Committee and participated in the autonomous vehicle hearing. He said that one in every 20 jobs in his state is a truck driving job. However, Colorado also has a vibrant tech community, and he was very impressed with the Otto demonstration in Colorado last year in which a truck was placed in autonomous mode by the driver once it got on the interstate. With driver's seat empty, the rig piloted itself 120 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, at which point the driver got back in the seat and drove it to the terminal.
Sen. Gardner said, "With the innovations that we've been able to achieve in this country, we're going to have progress, innovation, and more jobs than we've ever had before." He continued, "We've got to be able to figure out how to say that in a way that is helping people see that, understand that, and know that they're going to be okay because until we can answer that question, 'You know what? You're going to be okay and here's how,' there is going to be an uncertainty and it's going to be an unsettling part of people's lives and families so we need help in being able to answer that question because the answer isn't, 'There's going to be less.' The answer is, 'There is going to be more.' We're going to create more jobs as a result."
Right now, those vivid pictures and the documentation to support them are the missing links in the chain of artificial intelligence innovations.