President Obama hasn’t had to drive a car for years: Being chauffeured in the presidential limo, aka the Beast, is part of the privilege of his position and for his protection. But he’s obviously been considering the implications of when most of us will be driven rather than driving ourselves once autonomous vehicle technology takes over.
And the president has been pondering not only the policy repercussions – the result of which is the U.S. DOT’s recently released guidelines for the technology that Obama has had an active role and voice in crafting – but also the ramification of robos-cars on society. “We have machines that can make a bunch of quick decisions that could drastically reduce traffic fatalities, drastically improve the efficiency of our transportation grid, and help solve things like carbon emissions that are causing the warming of the planet,” Obama said in a recent interview with Wired.
But while we know that autonomous technology has the potential to save lives, reduce traffic, lower fuel consumption and possibly eliminate parking hassles, self-driving cars can bring other benefits, such as lowering the cost of transportation for the economically disadvantaged. But it can also have negative consequences by eliminating jobs.
As part of its winning Smart City Challenge proposal, Columbus, Ohio, plans to use autonomous vehicles to connect its Linden neighborhood, where unemployment is three times the city average, to a nearby jobs center. Columbus also has an infant mortality rate four times the national average. So officials have earmarked funds for a program that provides expectant mothers in low-income areas with transportation options that could include autonomous vehicle so that they can get to medical facilities for prenatal care.
And since finalist cities Austin and San Francisco are struggling with affordability issues, both have emphasized using technology, particularly self-driving cars, to provide more cost-effective transportation options for low-income residents. “We’re the most economically segregated city in the country … and government is in part responsible for those challenges,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. “We need to take a look at innovations to address those challenges.”
“The social compact has to accommodate these new technologies,” Obama told Wired, “and our economic models have to accommodate them. Otherwise, we may find that it’s disadvantaging certain people or certain groups.”
While the benefits of automated vehicle have been promoted, the drawbacks are beginning to be examined as well. Autonomous vehicles could mean job losses for millions of people who make their living driving everything from taxis to big rigs, for example.
More than four million Americans are employed as drivers, and there are around 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the U.S. alone, according to the American Trucker Association. The profession is a mainstay of the economy in many places, and the most common job in more than half of the states.
It’s also one of the last vestiges of stable middle class income for those without a college degree living in places where factory jobs have already been shipped overseas or eliminated by automation. An experienced trucker makes about $40,000 per year, and with overtime some can earn up to $70,000 a year with full medical coverage and other benefits.
But in the same way that automation has replaced human workers in industries ranging from manufacturing to medicine, many driving jobs could also disappear. Part of government’s role in regulating self-driving technology, Obama noted, is “making sure that the broad public … still feels as if their voices are heard, they’re represented, that the people in the room are mindful of a range of equities.”
He added that the government’s task is “making sure that the regulations themselves reflect a broad base set of values, because otherwise … we may find that it’s disadvantaging certain people, certain groups.”
Originally published by Forbes.com