Technological advancement has created greater efficiency, increased public safety and generated more jobs. These undeniable facts ring hollow to Americans facing immediate displacement from automation. Though sympathizing with these workers and exploring options to ease their re-entry is important, forcing innovation to halt to keep them employed in their current jobs is too costly to bear. California’s recent bill AB-316 aims to do just that by banning driverless trucks at the behest of the Teamster Union.
Fears of automation date back to the invention of the textile mill in the early 19th century. The period saw the creation of the first anti-technology movement: the Luddites. Disgruntled textile workers feared advancements in textile machinery would make their handcraft-based jobs obsolete. In their rage, these workers destroyed the machines in an ill-fought battle against inevitability.
It’s easy to scoff at the Luddites with the hindsight of living in the 21st century. Still, today, this same reaction to technological change persists. Like the Luddites of old, the movement to stop automation at all costs today represents a movement to hold back time. Just as textile machines brought down the cost of fabric and created higher-value jobs, so too are autonomous vehicles (AV) demonstrating similar value and eliciting a similar reaction.
Bill proponents have attacked AVs on the grounds that they’re unsafe and only a human operator could manage the safety concerns inherent to driving. Their reasoning is completely backward. It’s the human operator who presents the main danger to public safety. Estimates by IDTechEX demonstrated that nearly 99 percent of accidents on the road were a result of human error. In that same study, when analyzing incidents involving an AV, errors made by other drivers, rambunctious pedestrians or the behind-the-wheel operator were responsible nearly every time.
This study supports the conclusions of similar testing done by Waymo. Waymo found that AVs outperform human drivers in collision avoidance, a key aspect of road safety. Another study on one million miles of AV driving provided a wide range of environments and mileage for testing safety and performance. The results included only two collisions that warranted police involvement, both resulting from external human error. Even with these two collisions, the collision risk for driverless cars is below that of human drivers.
Banning driverless trucks over safety concerns makes no sense, but that’s not the only concern the bill is designed to address. Proponents are also upfront about wanting to protect driving-based jobs. If the first concern was erroneous, then this one is political and ultimately futile. Past failures to hold back technological change have taught us that one way or another, a new generation of machines always gets made. Holding back progress does have costs — in this case, innocent lives.
A study by Rand Corporation estimated that policies aimed at stalling the implementation of AVs could result in loss of life. If AVs already outperform human drivers in safety, then stalling their deployment or increasing their cost will result in more lives lost to traffic accidents.
These same restrictions will also increase supply-line expenses for everyday consumers. An unnecessary behind-the-wheel operator, being paid a union salary, will eliminate much of the cost savings that come with AVs. AV trucks could reduce operating expenses by 45 percent. Adding an operator back largely eliminates these gains. Companies will have to pay for these state-mandated operators by raising the cost of shipping, which could be passed down to consumers.
Increased costs for mandatory union operators in every AV truck could result in fewer investments in the industry. These pullbacks will hurt tech sector startups and reduce California’s innovative output. Ultimately, these handicaps could become opportunities for other regions that want to capture these innovative startups by offering policies that don’t stunt progress.
Policymakers can slow down technological progress, but they can’t stop it forever. The same is true for the proponents of AB-316, who maintain their current positions at a steep cost in safety and efficiency. The question is not whether driverless trucks will be deployed — it’s how much money and life efforts to stall will cost before that happens.
Isaac Schick is a policy analyst at the American Consumer Institute, a nonprofit education and research organization. For more information about the Institute, visit www.TheAmericanConsumer.Org or follow us on Twitter @ConsumerPal.