August 11, 2017 / 6:50 PM / 2 years ago

Union throws wrench in self-driving works

A Chrysler semi truck heading for Detroit, Michigan, drives on the lane to Ambassador Bridge in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, April 28, 2017. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

WASHINGTON (Reuters Breakingviews) - The Teamsters are throwing a wrench into the self-driving movement’s works. The union has convinced U.S. lawmakers to exempt commercial trucks from a bill allowing more autonomous vehicles on the roads. Granted, 3.5 million jobs are at stake. But as Tesla joins Daimler and others in the big-rig tech race, it’d be smarter to prepare haulers for a career shift.

Congress is due to tackle the first federal legislation on self-driving vehicles in September after it returns from summer recess. The bipartisan plan raises the cap on permitted vehicles that don’t have common features such as a steering wheel, or meet certain safety requirements, to 100,000 a year from the current limit of 2,500.

The Teamsters, though, successfully lobbied to exclude vehicles under 10,000 pounds. Yet the technology is rapidly advancing. Daimler was testing a self-driving rig on Nevada’s roads in 2015. Last year startup Otto, now owned by Uber, made one of the first known deliveries by an autonomous truck – 50,000 cans of beer. Earlier this week, Reuters reported that Tesla is developing an electric, driverless semi-truck. Alphabet’s Waymo is making similar moves.

The union has opposed other policy pushes, such as states wanting to allow companies to use what is known as platooning technology. This would digitally connect a group of trucks so they drive in a gas-saving formation. It’s seen as a precursor to autonomous trucks and Arkansas, Tennessee and South Carolina are among the states considering such a move.

Fast adoption of such technology is in the industry’s and economy’s interest, too. Commercial trucking plays a key role in the U.S. economy, delivering about 70 percent of goods. The industry generates more than $700 billion a year in revenue. Yet the average age of truckers is 49, causing a worker shortage that is projected to hit 240,000 drivers by 2022, according to the American Trucking Associations.

Perhaps the Teamsters are trying to ensure these older workers can reach retirement age without any fear of being dumped by the side of the road. But the advent of masses of autonomous vehicles on the roads of any stripe is at least a decade away. Even then, human drivers may still be in demand for short-haul trips. And younger truckers will need retraining before autonomy fully kicks in. Gearing workers up for this inevitability is a better labor strategy than obfuscation.


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