The majority of car companies have dedicated themselves to an electric future, and some bold ones are going a step further, pledging to go autonomous in the next several years.
We’re still a few years away from when the Jetsons’ mode of transportation becomes a reality because there are a number of legislative and technical roadblocks to navigate, as well as the potential effect this technology will have on jobs within the transportation industry.
A RETURN TO THE GLORY DAYS FOR AMERICAN AUTOMAKERS?
Self-driving vehicles are already here — sorta.
Many cars already have some sort of autonomous aspect (think: power steering, cruise control), and some even come with an auto braking feature that prevents a driver from ramming the car in front of them. But the vast majority of vehicles on the road rely on drivers to, well, drive.
Google’s self-driving “Koala” cars are arguably the most well-known. And the American car maker Tesla, owned by tech giant Elon Musk, has vowed that a driverless car will make a trip from coast to coast by 2018.
Detroit heavyweights aren’t leaving autonomous car production to companies in Silicon Valley. In June, GM announced an expansion of its already existing fleet of self-driving electric Bolts, increasing it to 180 cars, up from 50. Ford has committed to having a self-driving car by 2021.
European companies Volvo and BMW are embracing the technology as well, establishing a deadline of the year 2020 when both will start delivering fully autonomous cars.
In the not-so-distant future, long-haul truckers could become a part of American folklore.
As part of an effort to reduce costs and safety issues with truckers falling asleep behind the wheel, self-driving trucks are beginning to appear. Their impact on employment will be significant: A report by Goldman Sachs reveals that the automation of the trucking industry is likely to eliminate 300,000 jobs a year.
Self-driving cars from ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft could revolutionize the gig economy that they helped create. Both are incorporating autonomous cars into their fleets.
Last September, Uber began piloting fully automated vehicles in Pittsburgh. The company has also launched the cars in San Francisco and Los Angeles. But the ride-sharing app won’t be eliminating its docket of drivers anytime soon, since a human had to assume the wheel of the self-driving Uber every 0.8 miles, according to Recode.
Even if a fully autonomous set of wheels — one that didn’t need a driver or someone monitoring the road to intervene — is launched tomorrow, experts say that it will take at least 15 to 20 years before it becomes ubiquitous on America’s highways.
Others believe that autonomous vehicles will be job creators.
At a conference in May, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen claimed that the fear of automation killing jobs is “a fallacy,” arguing that when workers don’t have to drive, their productivity will increase. Self-driving cars will spur job creation, thanks to the proliferation of exurbs, additional areas beyond suburbs where people can work.
“It’s a recurring panic,” he says. “This happens every 25 or 50 years, people get all amped up about ‘machines are going to take all the jobs’ and it never happens.”
WHO’S IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT?
Another concern regarding self-driving cars is who yields regulatory power over them. Right now, no one does.
The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration has regulatory authority over car safety, while the Federal Communications Commission oversees technology. As autonomous vehicles have become more of a reality in recent years, the two authorities have been collaborating to determine privacy regulations. They’re also streamlining testing guidelines, which, thanks to a House bill passed in July with bipartisan support, makes it easier for companies to test as many as 100,000 self-driving vehicles on roads in different states.
For testing to occur, automakers will have to prove to the Department of Transportation that their vehicles are just as safe as those driven by humans. But there’s worry about how — or if — companies will disclose that information to the government.
“In the automotive world, the industry has always said ‘trust us,’ and I think our concern is that we’ve had that situation in the past,” says Joseph Jerome, legal policy counsel with the Center for Democracy and Technology, referring to past issues with car company’s loose regulations that resulted in multiple issues, including the Chrysler recall. “I guess I’m always skeptical of them saying ‘trust us.’”