Over a century ago, trains moved freight across our nation. When technology changed and cabooses no longer played a role in train safety, railmen fought for laws to require cabooses to be manned with unnecessary workers. This blip in our history of fully embracing innovation is instructive for our current debates over the shift to self-driving vehicles – technology that will save millions of lives and empower the elderly and people with disabilities.
Today, trains and trucks compete to move freight. But trucking is one of the most dangerous jobs in America. In 2015, 745 drivers died on the road. This is roughly one-quarter of all workplace fatalities – more than any other industry. It comes as no surprise, then, that the trucking industry has struggled to hire drivers in recent years. The American Trucking Association says there were 48,000 fewer drivers than available jobs in 2015. And for qualified, active drivers, this means longer and more frequent trips to fill the gaps.
Self-driving trucks will transform American commerce while dramatically improving road safety. They will revolutionize transportation – and also make it less expensive – letting companies send goods over long distances without worrying about whether a driver has the stamina for yet another marathon drive.
This week, the Senate Commerce Committee is hearing arguments on including self-driving trucks in self-driving legislation. It’s a tough question: There’s no denying that in the long term, self-driving trucks will change the role and responsibilities of truck drivers. However, this will be a generational shift, not an abrupt displacement of drivers, and in fact, will likely improve conditions for them.
Simply resisting self-driving trucks to protect existing jobs overlooks big problems the trucking industry now faces. And self-driving trucks will reduce human error, increasing safety both for drivers and for the millions of Americans with whom they share the nation’s highways.
Safety issues aside, keeping self-driving trucks off the road in an effort to keep drivers employed obscures the deeper problem. Innovation will always disrupt the job market. Trying to stop the tide of technology never works, and the time and energy spent resisting it is a Sisyphean challenge. A wiser effort is to adapt. In nature and in business, the winners are not the strongest or fastest, but the quickest to adapt to change. Self-driving vehicles will create new industries and new kinds of jobs. We’ll need auto workers who know how to repair these new vehicles. We’ll need tech workers to develop and update the software that powers these cars. We’ll need construction workers to help prepare our infrastructure for the changes that self-driving technology will bring.
The good news is that we’re already ahead of the curve. It will be several years – maybe decades – before we have the right legal and physical framework for total adoption to occur. We can – and must – use this time to prepare.
This means staying technology-neutral – allowing all forms and models of a technology to emerge unhindered. Effective implementation, however, will require candid policy discussions. Government needs to act to ensure that legacy interests, including the different regulatory schemes for commercial and personal vehicles, do not wind up creating a patchwork of rules that delay the benefits of self-driving vehicles – benefits that include a potential 30,000 American lives saved each year.
It also means that the public and private sectors must work together to create the necessary physical framework – and that means helping workers get the right skills to get the job done. We must focus on technical skills and develop apprentice programs. We must invest in STEM education from an early age to prepare the next generation to take the jobs of the future. We must also help those who are already in the workforce transition smoothly, teaching them how to navigate new technologies as older ones begin to retire.
Self-driving vehicles are an exciting inevitability. Education – not protection – is the most effective way to deal with disruption. And in many industries, we should embrace technology to improve working conditions and make jobs easier.
Let’s get to work laying down the necessary systems and structures so that this technology can emerge without delay. With the right laws and the right strategies, our roads will be safer, our transportation less expensive and our workforce stronger because of it.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,200 consumer technology companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling books, “Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses” and “The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream.”
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