Saturday, August 6, 2016

Should We Ban Self-Driving Trucks?

I am not at all sure that self-driving cars are on the edge of reality. But I think self-driving long-haul trucks might well be just a few years away. Not much happens out on the Interstate, and the biggest danger is the driver falling asleep. That seems to me like a challenge computers can handle pretty easily.

Which means that within a decade self-driving trucks may put most of the 1.5 million long-haul truckers in the country out of work. Most of these truckers are drawn from the same demographic that has suffered the biggest decline in status over the past fifty years, men from rural areas and small towns.

Should we let that happen?

If we care about inequality, why should we let a million jobs disappear so the owners of Google and the trucking firms can get richer? If we care about ordinary people doing ordinary jobs, why would we let technology take the livelihoods of a million of them? What would we be gaining that would be worth so much?

We absolutely could do this; this is not a case in which other countries could take over the work, or where the technology would creep in no matter what we do. It would not be difficult to enforce a law requiring a human driver in every large truck.

But should we? And if not, why not?


David said...

I would certainly support a measure such as you suggest. It probably wouldn't be too hard to sell politically, either.

G. Verloren said...

Protecting jobs sounds great, but human error routinely costs lives. I'd want to see numbers and cost benefit analysis before having to choose one over the other.

But why not take an unmentioned third option? Why not let computers do most of the actual driving of the trucks, but still require every truck to have a human operator as an "overseer" of sorts?

They'd be there to take care of other necessities that computers would struggle with - manually navigating unusual road conditions, inspecting the truck and performing physical maintenance, refueling the vehicle, protecting the cargo from theft or tampering, performing loading and unloading duties, observing and reporting road conditions beyond the scope of vehicle mounted sensors or weather satellite imaging, rendering aid to other motorists in need, rapidly responding to emergencies and mechanical failures such as engine fires, et cetera, et cetera.

Autopilot on airplanes didn't remove the need for a pilot, even if the majority of flight control is today carried out by computers. Truck drivers can and I believe will still have value as a sort of combined pilot and maintenance crew for their own vehicles.

John said...

My eldest son had a comment: "Eventually we want computers to put everyone out of work and this is a good start."

Not much on work, my sons.

G. Verloren said...

To be fair, I'm of the same opinion. If we can automate most labor, and achieve sustainable energy and crop production, why shouldn't we?

People argue about the inherent values of work, but I think that's only true if you don't hate your job. And in a world where everything is automated, you still have the freedom to work if you want to - you can just choose what you want to do, instead of having to settle for something that keeps you fed and housed.