Here are two mysteries from deep inside the federal government for you to consider, one wrapped inside the other. The House Energy Committee unanimously approved a new bill this week which is designed to promote the rapid deployment of self-driving vehicles. If passed, it would not only loosen regulations on getting such autonomous machines out on the roads more quickly, but would block states from passing individual laws banning them. Whether or not this is a good idea or if the technology is ready for prime time is a debate (and mystery) we can save for another day. What’s really interesting here is the second part of the announcement. These new rules would only apply to vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds. In other words, they would cover cars, pick-ups and SUVs, but not commercial tractor trailers.
Does that sound rather odd to you? Or perhaps even backwards? It doesn’t if you happen to be in the leadership of the labor unions who got the exception put in so that their truck drivers wouldn’t lose their jobs to automation. (Reuters)
The Teamsters union on Friday praised House lawmakers for keeping self-driving commercial trucks out of a proposed bill aimed at speeding deployment of the advanced technology for cars.
The U.S. House Energy and Committee on Thursday unanimously approved a bill that would hasten the use of self-driving cars without human controls and bar states from blocking autonomous vehicles. The measure only applies to vehicles under 10,000 pounds and not large commercial trucks.
The 1.4-million-member union, hoping to protect the jobs of truck drivers, has been lobbying at the federal and state levels to slow legislation to make it easier for companies to roll out self-driving trucks.
Having the teamsters dictating policy to Congress is about as much of a dog-bites-man tale as you’re likely to run across. Given how much money they donate to candidates from both parties that’s no surprise at all. But in this instance they’ve really pulled off an amazing feat. You see, plenty of questions remain about self-driving vehicles, but some of the trickiest ones have to do with ethics. And in that area, big rig trucks should be one of the least controversial classes of vehicles to consider when it comes to driverless functionality. Allow me to explain:
The question of ethics when it comes to self-driving vehicle technology has been hotly debated since before the first prototype took to the test track. From university think tanks to the pages of technology publications, experts have been arguing over the utter lack of “humanity” (for lack of a better word) in the programing and decision making processes in such vehicles and it’s a seriously complicated and very real issue.
With a human being at the wheel, drivers risk facing any number of ethical dilemmas while out for a cruise but we expect them to handle them as best they can and bear responsibility later. How far would you go to avoid hitting a pedestrian if simply swerving and/or hitting the brakes wouldn’t do it? Would you wreck your own vehicle and risk your life to save someone else? The computer has to face all of these potential trials and more, all while doing so without the benefit of a conscience or sense of self.
If a self-driving vehicle is tooling down the road and there’ suddenly a person standing in their lane too close to stop the car and the next lane is blocked by traffic, what will the car do? Swerve off the cliff to save the pedestrian? What about the passenger in the car? If there are two pedestrians in the lane and only one in the vehicle, will the car “decide” to sacrifice its passenger in the interest of saving a greater number of lives? It’s in questions such as those where self-driving trucks should not only be included in the mix, but have an easier time on the ethics front. If the truck has only cargo onboard and no human passengers, you program it to sacrifice the cargo and save the human. And unlike a human truck driver who fears for his own mortal soul, the truck should make the sacrifice every time.
Certainly gives you plenty to consider before you get into your first Uber with no human driver pretty soon, huh?