Better get it right on driverless vehicles

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By Jim Hansen

It was gratifying to learn that State Representative Jeff Bridges doesn’t limit his consideration only to his constituents, John Elway and Peyton Manning, when he beats the drum for driverless vehicles.

He said he has bigger concerns. So we were immediately delighted recently when we began to read Representative Bridge’s paean to autonomous transportation conveyances in the Denver Post. Unfortunately, though, that was a snap judgment, made before we completed his guest column.

Bridges failed to mention the two issues that might eventually have the greatest impact on the most people — those who are going to lose their jobs and those who might be victims of insufficient safety protections.

Indeed, organized labor does share Representative Bridges’ concern for elderly people who can’t drive safely anymore, those who are physically or developmentally disabled, economically disadvantaged or drivers who are easily distracted. Clarinet lessons and Disney vacations are a stretch for us, but we’ll be charitable in a search for conciliation.

Organized labor understands that driverless vehicles will eventually be a part of our everyday life, and members don’t oppose the development of this exciting concept.

But it is indefensible not to cite unemployment and safety as serious potential problems. It is vital that these issues are considered simultaneously with the development of the industry.

Thousands of workers are wondering how their lawmakers will solve — or try to solve — the unemployment that will be caused by this new transportation concept.

It is expected that a big chunk of the state’s economy would be lost when driverless vehicles displace possibly 100,000 workers, including commercial drivers — those who drive trucks, buses, taxis and limousines — and warehouse workers and others.

The average individual wage for workers in the ground transportation industry is $51,000. What will be those workers’ destiny when they lose their livelihood?

During the statehouse hearings on driverless vehicles legislation it was easy to reach the conclusion that nobody — except those who will lose their jobs — gives much of a damn about the future of those workers.

There was no mention of retraining or any other form of help for workers displaced by their own tools of work. And Rep. Bridges didn’t touch on that in his ode to vehicles without drivers.

Another unmentioned problem will be how the state will replace the economic benefits that will be lost if thousands of workers are put out of their jobs, benefits such as lost income taxes, sales taxes and also revenue losses to businesses they patronize?

A major concern for the public should be safety, which has apparently not been given much thought by the Silicon Valley techies who can figure out almost everything else, especially that which makes money for them.

If history is any indication, safety issues may not be among their priority concerns.

Representative Bridges cites the airline industry as an example of a safe industry. He didn’t, however, mention that while aircraft today is perfectly capable of flying without pilots, history shows it endured perilous and deadly growing periods. It is also noteworthy that modern commercial airliners have two pilots in the cabin at all times.

If autonomous vehicles are allowed to operate on state roads prematurely without adequate rules and regulations, the same type of unintended consequences — involving mostly safety and legal issues — will occur that plagued the airline industry in the early years of commercial air travel.

At that time, most of that industry’s rules and regulations were made after fatal airplane crashes. Hopefully, we have learned something since the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903, and will avoid the same destructive path to success.

It would be tragic to think of autonomous vehicles only as shiny objects, which is what the Silicon Valley technocrats want us to believe. Beware — especially as Christmas is approaching.

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