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After some cautious toe-dipping by Google in a well-publicized series of experiments on public roads in California and Nevada, other more serious players are now eyeing the waters of driverless cars. According to a recent New York Times report, automakers including General Motors, Volvo, Infiniti, Mercedes-Benz, and Tesla have either already fielded limited-capability “lane-keeping” features in their high-end models, or plan to unveil more advanced systems soon that will allow complete hands-off driving under a wide variety of conditions. Absent a flood of new restrictive legislation, which hasn’t happened so far, it is fairly safe to say that the autonomous vehicle is just a few blocks down the road and heading this way. Is this a good thing, and if so, for whom?

Danny Crichton, a Ph. D. student in the Harvard John F. Kennedy School of Government, thinks it is. Writing in a recent issue of National Review, he waxes rhapsodical over the benefits of automation past and future, and has this to say about driverless cars: “Perhaps no technology has more potential to improve our quality of life than the autonomous car. We will be able to relax during our commutes, reducing our stress and improving our health. Autonomous cars could almost instantaneously deliver a greater number of goods and services, such as meals, household supplies, and home-maintenance services, giving us more leisure time.”

Crichton clearly writes from a perspective in which driving is just one more daily chore we have to put up with on our way to our real job of teaching or administrating or studying for our Ph. D. from Harvard. Rather oddly for a person who researches labor economics, he never once mentions an occupation by which about one out of every forty employed persons (2.4%) in the U. S make their living: professional truckdriving.

If you are a sober, responsible family man (or woman) who couldn’t cut the grade in college but want to make a decent living by working hard, truckdriving is one of the more attractive jobs. Especially with the recent oil boom fueled by fracking technology, truckdrivers have been in great demand. For a while there were billboards on I-35 in Central Texas advertising large signing bonuses for truckdrivers willing to go to work in the oil fields. While the hours are long, the work stressful and sometimes dangerous, and time at home is limited, millions of truckdrivers earn enough to support a family. Many of them are members of minority groups, and quite a few own their trucks, making them entrepreneurs. Almost every dump truck I see servicing a construction site around Central Texas has a sign on it with the Hispanic surname of the owner-operator.

I don’t know when, or if, trucking companies will go to autonomous driving systems. Because of their specialized skills and responsibilities, long-distance and heavy-equipment truckdrivers may be the last cadre of humans to yield the driver’s seat to a robot, long after all passenger cars have turned into mobile Internet lounges. But operators of delivery fleets would like nothing better than to turn their personnel headaches into autonomous-vehicle maintenance accounts. There remains the question of who or what picks up the package from the back of the UPS truck and carries it to your door, but quadcopters are waiting in the wings for that. I’m not sure how a quadcopter will ring a doorbell, but by then maybe we’ll have wireless doorbells. Local delivery service is one of the applications that Mr. Crichton explicitly envisions as being done by autonomous vehicles.

Human beings have an obscure but persistent longing for permanence. If we find a good thing, we want it to go on indefinitely, and that goes for jobs as well as other things. But it’s generally a bad thing to use legislation or union muscle to artificially preserve specific categories of jobs in the face of technological changes. This kind of thing carried to an extreme produces the antique-car museum that is Cuba, and stifles the increasing technology-fueled productivity that Crichton praises in his article. If increased productivity means we can do more with less, the economy as a whole benefits, but some people stand more of a chance to benefit than others.

Today’s truckdriver in an earlier time might have been my grandfather’s iceman, who routinely lugged 300-pound blocks of ice around in a horse-drawn wagon and hauled chunks of it into kitchen iceboxes. The electric refrigerator eliminated those jobs by the 1950s, but at the same time the trucking industry grew and eventually supplanted rail as a dominant form of goods transport. And it takes a lot more truckers than it does railroad workers to deliver the same amount of stuff.

So far, autonomous-driving technology is expanding into what the New York Times terms a regulatory vacuum. A few states have passed laws either licensing or restricting such cars, but in most states it is still neither prohibited nor explicitly allowed.

Eventually, a driverless car will be involved in a fatal accident. We may or may not hear about it, depending on the skill of the automaker’s PR people. But whenever such an accident becomes public knowledge, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will then receive its legal warrant to examine the whole issue of autonomous vehicles. The outcome of its study will be critical to the question of whether the technology will continue to be deployed smoothly and cautiously, or whether labor groups such as truckdrivers who feel threatened by it will seize on the incident to mount a crippling regulatory attack that will stop the technology in its tracks. If that happens, the nation as a whole may end up the loser.

The growth of a new technology is a fascinating thing, bound up in both technical and social issues that can hinge on small but critical events. The next few years will show whether driverless cars make it big and relieve most of us from what is often a burden—and whether they relieve thousands or millions of professional drivers of their jobs.

Sources: Danny Crichton’s article, “Fear Not the Robot,” appeared in the May 4, 2015 edition of National Review, pp. 34-35. The May 2, 2015 online edition of the New York Times carried the article “Hands-Free Cars Take Wheel, and Law Isn’t Stopping Them,” by Aaron M. Kessler, at http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/03/business/hands-free-cars-take-wheel-and-law-isnt-stopping-them.html. The statistic about the number of professional truckdrivers in the U. S. was from the website http://www.alltrucking.com/faq/truck-drivers-in-the-usa/. And my grandfather really did run an ice plant for a number of years in the 1930s.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. 

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...