House Committee Approves Autonomous Vehicle Legislation, Launching Debate Over the Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Work


Perhaps for the first time, Congress is confronting the competing interests generated by the emergence of artificial intelligence—the promise of a far better society and the fear of catastrophic job loss.  In late July, the House Energy and Commerce Committee took a major step forward in promoting the autonomous car industry.  It approved the SELF DRIVE Act that would create a uniform, nationwide set of laws enabling self-driving cars to operate anywhere in the United States unfettered by conflicting state regulatory schemes.  As described in my previous commentary, this legislation is essential if self-driving vehicles are to operate seamlessly in all 50 states.  It was encouraging, therefore, that the vote in committee in favor of the bill was 54 to zero, a welcome example of bipartisanship in an era of gridlock.  However, that unanimous vote would not have occurred if a deal hadn't been made to balance those competing interests.

The deal?  Autonomous cars get a green light, commercial trucks a red.  Any self-driving vehicle weighing less than 10,000 pounds will have the full benefit of the bill's incredibly strong preemption language.  Any vehicle weighing more, which sweeps in most commercial trucks and vans, will be denied those protections and remain trapped in the clutter of conflicting state driving laws.

The autonomous vehicle legislation is being shaped by a variety of strong forces.  There are automakers such as General Motors, Fiat Chrysler, Ford and Tesla, technology companies such as Alphabet, and driving companies such as Lyft.  Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Michigan Democrat from Dearborn, has become one of the legislation's most powerful advocates with potentially hundreds of autoworker and construction jobs in southeastern Michigan at stake.  She argues, "If we want the next great wave of manufacturing and R&D to take place in this country as opposed to overseas, then we need to have a strong but flexible regulatory framework for automated vehicles that always puts safety first."  But, "If we fail to act or keep this process moving, our country will fall behind, pure and simple."

Not everyone shares her views.  Certain consumer groups such as Consumer Watchdog oppose the preemption because it "leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all."  Likewise, city and state transportation officials are protesting the legislation, saying it dumps "cities, states and citizens on the side of the road, unable to manage their roadways."  However, with auto fatalities climbing rapidly, 94 percent of which are due to human error, their arguments ring hollow.

More significant opposition is coming from organizations representing commercial drivers.  On the fringe are groups like New York's Upstate Transportation Association advocating for cab drivers who want a 50-year ban on self-driving cars.  More mainstream groups are reacting negatively to the application of self-driving technology to over-the-road tractor trailers and package delivery vehicles.  The 32 unions who make up the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Division, for example, are calling on Congress to understand the full effects of autonomous vehicles which they say "are likely to cause massive job dislocation and impact worker safety."  Together with the Teamsters, these organizations successfully lobbied to insert the weight limit in the legislation.  As Teamsters President James Hoffa, Jr. announced, "The Teamsters commend the committee and members of Congress for recognizing that a starting point for any discussion on this subject was that no legislation should impact commercial motor vehicles or traditional commercial drivers."

Even with that bright line, these unions are not happy with the compromise.  "Once you set the precedent in this bill, I think it's very likely that you are going to see the same type of regulation migrate to commercial vehicles more broadly," said Trades Division President Larry Willis.  And looking at how Congress works and technology evolves, he is probably correct.

What we are seeing is the initial jousting as policymakers begin to confront the existential threat of AI wiping out various career fields.  One of the tenets of advanced automation is that any task that is routine, predictable and repetitive will eventually be automated.  This tenet has triggered a vigorous debate over what to do with those who are displaced by automation and can't be readily reskilled.  One solution receiving considerable attention is the concept of a universal basic income, or UBI.  It would provide the displaced with certain levels of income to enable them to get by while seeking new career opportunities.  With the UBI concept in mind, it's important to read carefully the statements being made by union leaders in this debate.

"More needs to be done to make sure we adopt the right regulatory and labor policies governing the introduction of autonomous vehicles into the economy," asserts Mr. Willis.  Mr. Hoffa continues, "The wide range of issues that are inherent with vehicles used for commercial purposes warrants an entirely separate discussion….  Congress has wisely recognized that any such dialogue is entirely premature and must be done gradually, in the public view, and with the full engagement of all stakeholders."  He concludes by saying that "it is vital that Congress ensure that any new technology is…not used to put workers at risk on the job or destroy livelihoods and chip away at the middle class."  Clear message to Silicon Valley—your wizardry will come at a price.

The SELF DRIVE Act now goes to the full House of Representatives for a vote, possibly as early as September.  Anyone interested in the way in which artificial intelligence applications will be influenced by public policy should join us in watching the debate.  All those competing interests will likely be on full display.