Uber passengers hail rides with no human drivers in Pittsburgh. Budweiser bottles are shipped from the brewery in Fort Carson to Colorado Springs with the only human on board sitting in the passenger seat. And refrigerators to cool beer are shipped from El Paso, Texas to Palm Springs, California. All of this freight delivery happens without a driver behind the wheel. The technology is here. And it only gets better with each day. Brands new and old are onboard with autonomous driving. The largest impediment to unleashing this technology for mainstream use is determining how to regulate it.
In my research of automated trucking, the same questions are posed by participants across the industry. How can AI trucks navigate complicated city driving tasks? How do we ensure the safety of pedestrians and other motorists? Who is liable for collisions? What happens to the workers displaced by this technology? Employers, insurers, and policy makers seem hesitant to offer any solutions to these questions, perhaps out of fear of missteps. Such inaction only slows the progress of this paradigm-shifting technology and endangers lives as the window for critical thought on the topic slowly closes. The time is now for such conversations and the vigorous debate required to make decisions on complex issues. The dearth of answers has led to my own ruminations on what these rules of the autonomous road might look like in practice and potential ramifications.
The sweet spot for autonomous trucks is highways. These roads don’t have tricky intersections like cities and driving along them requires little more than guiding the vehicle between lane markers and braking or accelerating based on the flow of traffic. Given the danger posed by a wayward truck (due to algorithmic bugs or remote hackers) geo-fencing regulation serves as an early answer on balancing utility and security of the nascent technology. Geo-fencing technology would be used to disable the use of autonomous trucks within proximity of city centers or landmarks like tourist attractions or power plants that are likely to have concentrated groups of people or pose threats to large groups if damaged by the truck. Google’s Waymo division has a plan for autonomous vehicles in line with this approach. Their leadership envisions a hub and spoke model in which autonomous trucks transport goods to and from logistics hubs just outside of cities. This facilitates the swift and safe transport of goods along highways before turning over the more difficult task to navigating complex streets to human drivers.
Break gaze with your preferred digital screen and take a look at the sky above. Chances are, you can spot an airplane flying by within minutes. At any given moment, about 5,000 planes are in flight and the Federal Aviation Administration tracks every single one of them. We’ll need a similar body to regulate self-driving vehicles, especially commercial transportation. The National Autonomous Vehicle Registry will track trucks traversing the nation’s highway system. As the vehicles cross city and state jurisdictions, a national entity is required to track them in case of theft or an otherwise compromised vehicle. All fleet operators or individual owners would be required to register their autonomous vehicles with NAVR in the same way human-driven vehicles currently register with the DMV. Conversely, data integrity rules will mandate that NAVR cannot store individual transportation data beyond 60 days. This is necessary to keep the self driving ecosystem from facilitating a surveillance state with record of all movement of individuals.
Human error is the cause of 90% of auto collisions. Once fault is determined, the offending party is held liable for damages or medical bills. While AVs may cut down on collisions drastically, there will still be incidents. But if the person in the vehicle is not behind the wheel, they cannot be held accountable for an accident caused by a faulty algorithm. The organizations deploying the vehicle and its algorithm must be held accountable when it fails to perform. I propose joint liability for the technology company that develops the software and the business or entity that commissioned it. When Maytag outfits its delivery fleet with self-driving technology from Otto, both companies should be equally responsible for a collision caused by that vehicle. They would split the bill on restoring damages or payout in the case of a lawsuit.
In the era of automation, job security no longer exists for professional drivers. Trucking professionals can see the change in the distance and when the technology is ready, switching from human to AI drivers will be swift. After the initial cost of new equipment, companies stand to profit immensely as the robot replacements don’t require ongoing salaries and work without break, aside from refueling. Businesses often tout their only obligations are to shareholders, but our societal obligations are to individuals that make up the whole. Regulation is required to protect those individuals when businesses see fit to replace them with robots. This unemployment will be unique as the former truckers will have no remaining driving roles to seek in the job market. Thus, training and redeployment will be paramount. Every time a company replaces a worker with a robot, they would be required to pay that individual severance of at least six months and an equivalent cash amount is required to provide educational or training courses for the displaced worker. This approach would aim to mitigate the jarring displacement felt by such a seismic shift in the workforce.
Perhaps some of the hemming and hawing in regard to moving forward with plans for the aforementioned regulations stems from lack of positions to lead the charge. The professionals best fit to enact change may not exist yet, at least not on paper. Among the 21 Jobs of the Future are a few candidates that are prime for this type of work. The geo-fencing structure and platform to keep autonomous vehicles operating in the right spaces is a job for the Cybercity Analyst. They ensure safety, security, and functionality in municipalities through facilitating data flows. Without them, cities lack the strategic arrangement of sensors that will keep commercial AVs operating within specified locations and alert officials of threatening vehicles. The Highway Controller regulates road and airspace in cities full of autonomous vehicles and drones. Teams of such professionals will make up the National Autonomous Vehicle Registry to lead policy implementation and actively manage the fleets of vehicles moving people and their possessions from place to place. In the off chance that one of those journeys results in a collision, Data Detectives will be deployed to asses fault and analyze causes to optimize transportation algorithms going forward. And Man-Machine Teaming Managers will work with businesses to identify new roles for their workforce as drivers are no longer needed behind the wheel to control vehicles. Instead of losing all that institutional knowledge, companies will rely on these professionals guide redeployment of experienced workers ready to contribute in new ways.
Self-driving vehicles are barreling toward reality, and with them a myriad of opportunity. Hopefully the coming years will see regulatory progress, fueled by rigorous testing and critical thought, keep pace with the tech strides we have already witnessed.