Opinion
2:24 pm
Mon March 25, 2013

Op-Ed: The Battles Ahead Over Driverless Cars

Originally published on Tue March 26, 2013 11:03 am

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

And now the politics of driverless vehicles, on the Opinion Page. Google's driverless cars have already put in more than 300,000 miles on the road, with no accidents reported so far. Most major manufacturers have announced intentions to jump into what could be an emerging market, and many think we'll see substantial numbers of these futuristic vehicles on the road before the end of this decade. Joshua Jacobs, co-founder of the Conservative Future Project, warns very little thought has been given to the wider implications of driverless vehicles on our society, and our economy. He begins with driverless trucks and the Teamsters Union.

If you drive, repair, sell or design automobiles for a living, what haven't we thought through about driverless cars? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Joshua Jacobs joins us from member station WHYY in Philadelphia. Good of you to come in.

JOSHUA JACOBS: Thanks so much for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And you suggest that trucking companies are likely to be among the early adopters, much more so than individual commuters, say.

JACOBS: Sure. It's a trend we're already starting to see today. If you look at mining companies, who tend to have very expensive premiums for bringing in drivers to their mines because they're in pretty remote areas, and the technology is pretty complex. Rio Tinto, Anglo American - some of the big mining companies have already either purchased driverless trucks for their mines, or have indicated an intention to purchase a significant amount over the next 10 years. And when you talk about the capital cost involved in a driverless truck, right now, it's about $150,000 for, I think, the outfit that Google has.

If you project out a couple of years, you can probably see the cost fall a little bit, but it's probably not going to be something - at least in my opinion - that you're going to see immediately with your average driver - at least, not fully autonomous vehicles. But it makes a lot more sense when you're talking about a truck. There's a lot more efficiency gained from being able to have a truck that can drive 24/7, that never misses a weigh station, that perhaps never gets pulled over. I guess that remains to be seen.

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: But yeah, there's a lot to think about if you're a freight-hauling company.

CONAN: And a lot to think about if you're a member of the Teamsters Union.

JACOBS: Definitely. And this is sort of where we get to an issue that I think not a lot of people have given thought. You know, we focused on Teamsters in this article. But the same arguments, and the same issues, that apply to Teamsters could conceivably apply to cab drivers. They could apply to your mailman. There are a lot of areas where this becomes an issue because you're talking about millions of Americans, millions of people who derive their livelihood from driving a vehicle. What happens when a robot does that job? In this country, I think there's about 3.5 million truck drivers, about 1.6 - give or take are - 1.6 million are part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. That's a lot of jobs that are going to be affected, and to my knowledge, I've only seen maybe a blog post or maybe one article written about that subject.

CONAN: Now, we've had all kinds of other jobs replaced by robots over the years - assembly line workers, welders, that sort of thing.

JACOBS: Sure. I think one of the things that differentiates this from that - so when you're talking about assembly workers, what happened in factories is that you had workers who - you had excess labor. You had excess labor that was removed; and you had more things produced, you had greater production, and you had more labor coming back to different kinds of factories. We're talking about an industry where you need zero human input. What would be the efficiency gained of putting a human driver into a driverless car? What kind of job could you push that into? And that's sort of what we wanted to talk about.

CONAN: Now, there are some applications that Google hasn't figured out yet. For example, the construction sites. What if you get conflicting signals? There's a green light but there's a policeman there, holding his hand up. How does the car figure out which signal to pay attention - but presumably, these things are going to get worked out.

JACOBS: Sure. And, you know, I should say right away, I am not an engineer. One of the points that we sort of raised in our article was that everyone is talking about these issues. Everyone is talking about what the impact will be on insurance. Everyone is talking about, well, are they really road safe? You know, are they really road ready yet? There's only a couple of states that have legalized them, but it's sort of accelerated that conversation. We're sort of the opinion that whether you think it's going to be five years or 15 years from now, eventually, those problems are going to be surmounted.

And that seems to be the opinion of most of the people who are working on these projects. So what we think is more important to talk about, is to talk about what the impact will be on society because I know - I just want to make a quick correction. When we were introduced, you know, we say - the announcement said that we wanted to put the brake on driverless cars. That's actually not true. We love driverless cars. We want to bring about that future as fast as possible.

But what we want to do is, we want to make sure that that future one, is not impeded by concerned interests like Teamsters unions.And we also want to make sure that we're spending the time today to talk about those problems that it will bring to those labor groups, so that we can avoid these problems and craft some solutions for the future instead of waiting till the deadline.

CONAN: You anticipate that in fact, the Teamsters and its associated interests will throw up all kinds of questions about safety and other issues, which may be legitimate.

JACOBS: Yeah. I think they will. But what concerns me is that I think they will throw up those concerns well pass the point of legitimacy. I think it is probably - and this is speculation, at this point - but I think it's probably not unreasonable to suspect that you would see a Teamsters Union, you know, well past the point of a safe driverless car, saying that whether it's for reasons of national security, whether it's for safety, there's enumerable reasons that could be conjured up that you need to have a driver behind the wheel.

And - or one idea, and one example, that comes to mind is that in Washington, D.C. - Washington, D.C., recently started the process of legalizing driverless taxis. But immediately, caveats were thrown on to it. Well, OK, you can have a driverless taxi, but it has to be a biofuel car. Well, OK, you can have a driverless taxi, but you have to have a driver in the car at all times. You can have a driverless taxi, but you have to do - you know, there's - there were other stipulations and regulations. And when you start doing that, you reduce the value of this new technology. And when you reduce the value of the technology, you slow down the kind of future that we could be getting to.

CONAN: Well, given the idea that it may take a while for people to accept this, some have suggested that in fact, the technology is more likely to be introduced as something like, you know, enhanced cruise control as opposed to fully automated, driverless vehicle.

JACOBS: Sure. I think that's something you're probably likely to see first. The timelines I mentioned - I say five, 10, 15 years. I should say, I think it's probably going to come about a lot sooner than people think, especially for freight-hauling just because the kind of driving that you're talking about is not nearly as complex as the kind of driving that you and I do every day. It's mostly highway driving. It is mostly point to point. I am taking a piece of freight from a port, and I am taking it to a warehouse. From that warehouse, smaller, probably manned, trucks can then deliver it to wherever it needs to go.

And the technology for it, quite frankly, is a little bit further along than it is for commercial vehicles. That's why it's been adapted to mines already - mining trucks, rather. So that's where - the perspective that we come from.

CONAN: We're talking with Joshua Jacobs, co-founder of the Conservative Future Project, and we'd like to hear your thoughts on what we haven't thought through about driverless vehicles. If you buy, sell, repair these kinds of cars or any kind of cars, what's the implication for what you do - 800-989-8255. Email us, alk@npr.org. And we'll start with Terry, and Terry on the line with us from Robbins, Tennessee.

TERRY: Yeah, Neal. I rescue people. I'm a volunteer rescue squad member. And I think about the carnage on the - like, the Washington, D.C., beltway or the Santa Monica freeway, if even half of the vehicles were - are autonomous and electromagnetic pulse, solar flare, or hackers took control.

CONAN: Yet, we also read - and I understand your concerns, Terry, and that would be definitely a problem that we should - need to address. Nevertheless, 38,000 people - something like that - die on the roads every year, and Google says if they were all driverless vehicles, you could cut that by 90 percent.

TERRY: That would be interesting. But dealing with the type of electronic interference that could cause a mass accident that - what's the total , or what's the highest one now - 105 vehicles involved in them?

CONAN: Something like that, except for that big one in China. But in this country, anyway, yeah.

TERRY: Yeah. And you're talking the potential for thousands in one accident.

CONAN: I wonder if you thought that through, Joshua Jacobs?

JACOBS: Sure. The first point, which is one that you already sort of mentioned, Neal, is that in the trials that we've seen so far - the most prominent being Google, but by far not the only one - they've had, I think, close to 70 or 80 vehicles on the road. They've done about 300,000 miles, and not a single accident has resulted from the software that they've developed.

CONAN: There was one, but that was when a human was behind the wheel.

JACOBS: Yeah. There was that - that's true. There was one accident, and that was when a human rear-ended the computer. So I don't know; maybe that's the sign of the future, as far as traffic court is concerned. But what is worth pointing out is, this is sort of what we were talking about before - is that the first issues that people are going to start bringing up are security; you know, what happens if you have a cyberterror incident. And what we say is that if you were going to stop driverless trucks - if you're going to stop computerized, automated transportation because of those concerns - we might as well start rolling back our entire digital society, you know. Our computer networks, you know, hospital mainframes - everything is digital. Everything is vulnerable to the potential for a cyberattack. Again, I'm not a computer engineer.

TERRY: That's kind of my point.

CONAN: Yeah.

JACOBS: But...

CONAN: And Terry, the other argument you hear is that there is conceivably a weakness, a flaw that could contribute to the kind of mass accident you're worried about. On the other hand, driverless cars don't drink. They don't text while driving, either.

TERRY: Right. And the - what I'm saying is that even if half of the vehicles in a given area, like the beltway, were driverless and they were all hit with a cyberattack or a solar flare, then the carnage would be thousands upon thousands of people injured versus...

JACOBS: If I could just...

CONAN: And go ahead - thanks very much, Terry.

TERRY: Thank you.

CONAN: And a quick response from Joshua Jacobs.

JACOBS: Sure. And again, this sort of goes to what I was saying before - is that if these are the concerns that are going to hold us back from adopting new technologies, we're well past the point of being able to contain that issue. If you had a solar flare, I think the least of our concerns would be whether or not our trucks crashed on the highway. You know, you'd have planes falling out of the sky. You'd have the stock market crashing. And this sort of ties into a lot of the concern over cybersecurity - is that I don't think we really expose ourselves to any more vulnerability by introducing more science, more technology and more digitization into our economy and our society. We passed that threshold probably 10, 15 years ago. It's time to start thinking about the benefits that these can bring.

CONAN: We're talking with Joshua Jacobs on the Opinion Page this week, co-founder of the Conservative Future Project. His op-ed, "Prepare for a Fight on Driverless Vehicles," ran in the Washington Times last Friday. You can find a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And this is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's go to Chris, and Chris on the line with us from Toledo.

CHRIS: Yes. I have a comment. I'm a mailman. I think it's - you guys mentioned the post office is using that. It'd be a fantastic idea, I think, to have autonomous vehicles as far as, you know, bringing mail out to us 'cause that's - half our time is, you know, driving around and, you know, having, you know, meet up with the vehicle, grab more mail and keep going. That's a good idea, I think.

CONAN: So you'd be all in favor of it, even if it might cost you your job.

(LAUGHTER)

CHRIS: Yes. That would be great as long as they can, you know, withstand the weather.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JACOBS: And it's worth noting, we're probably a little bit further away from the robot being able to jump out of the truck and...

(LAUGHTER)

JACOBS: ...and put someone's mail in the mailbox than we are from just the driverless trucks. So he may keep his job - it just might be a little bit easier.

CONAN: Here's an email from Daniel, and he writes: Law enforcement would not be pleased if no one ever sped on the road. Ticket revenue is a very important source of funds for law enforcement; just look at the push for red light cameras. And the only answer - response to that is, aw.

JACOBS: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

CONAN: Let's see if we can go...

JACOBS: You beat me to it.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's go to - this is Jeff, and Jeff is on the line with us from Louisville.

JEFF: Hi. I agree with your guest that it's probably going to be augmented. It's going to be - they're going to be - there's going to be drivers behind the wheels of trucks for quite for a while to come. We have drivers - we have conductors behind trains, and they're basically automated. And they're on rails. However, I do take a little exception with him saying that it's less-complicated driving than most people do. If it was less-complicated driving, they wouldn't require two steps, a B or an A to drive a truck. I just thought that that was a little misinformed on his part.

But I agree - you know, I'm all for something helping us drive because it does get boring on the road. You know, certainly we do get distracted, and there are a lot of wrecks. We just had a blizzard come through. I'm in Indiana right now. And - well, I'm from Louisville, Kentucky. But I'm in Indiana right now, and I've seen five trucks off the road. So I'm looking forward to it, but I don't think that people are going to be like - you know, thrown aside, like operators were at AT&T.

CONAN: Well, let me ask you a question, Jeff. Why is the trucking company going to spend $150,000 or so, on this technology if they're going to have to pay you to be behind the wheel anyway?

JEFF: Well, the reason planes don't fall out the sky is because there's a pilot there if there's a solar flare, OK? You can't just throw a truck out in the road and expect it to deal with everything. Now, 15 years from now, maybe, OK? But in the meantime, somebody's going to have to be behind the truck, in case the system fails. And the public, I think, is going to demand that...

CONAN: All right.

JEFF: ...even though - I think that Google has, you know, 300,000 miles, only one wreck. That's a great - but we still have trains. Like I said, we still have trains and planes, and they could be fully automated. But they're not.

CONAN: All right, Jeff...

JEFF: And so I just don't - maybe I'm ignorant and hopeful, you know, because it is my job. But I don't think that putting all these trucks out here and have them fully automated would work and...

CONAN: All right. We're - let's get Jeff - let's get Joshua Jacobs - a chance to respond.

JACOBS: Sure. I think one of the points that he mentioned is actually, really salient to this conversation. He mentioned that we still have - I think they're called firemen. They're like train engineers, on trains. We still have pilots in planes. Why hasn't that changed? And this is sort of what we were talking about. For trains, for example, you absolutely could have automated trains today. It's the reason - I mean, it's the reason why the amount of crew that you have on a train has decreased significantly over the past half-century.

We could have fully autonomous trains. We don't. Planes - we're increasingly getting to the point, and there are actually some companies that want to start experimenting with this - of drone, you know, not autonomous; but drone point to point, you know transportation for a plane...

CONAN: Particularly for cargo planes, yeah.

JACOBS: Yes, particularly for cargo planes because actually right now, most of the time, the pilot actually isn't flying the plane at all. He's there as a safety precaution. And you know, I understand that people might want to wait a little bit before they trust their own lives in the hands of the computer. But these are things that are coming a lot faster than people think. And I think Jeff underestimates how quickly autonomous technology has moved forward with trucks.

And I should mention that what I meant by simpler driving - and this is just based on some conversations that I've had with people who are little more knowledgeable about the subject than myself - is that the kind of driving that you're talking about, as far as the computer is concerned, as far as the kind of roads that you're navigating, is simpler than the kind that you and I do, not necessarily the driving...

CONAN: Joshua Jacobs, thanks very much for joining us to start the conversation. He was at our studios at member station WHYY in Philadelphia. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.