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Unions Look to Pump Brakes on Autonomous Vehicle Legislation

by Sam Chase
You don't have to be a news junkie to know that the passing of bipartisan legislation in Congress is a rare occurrence these days. Any vote is more likely than not to split directly along party lines, perhaps save for a couple of brave defectors.

It was something of a remarkable triumph, then, when the House Energy & Commerce committee approved the wider House floor legislation that would allow many more self-driving cars on the road by a unanimous 54-0 vote. For legislation to pass unanimously in 2017, it has to essentially be strongly approved by everyone.

Well, almost everyone. Various labor unions have made noise in the wake of the committee's approval of the legislation, noting the economic implications of a driverless car future -- specifically, the prospective job losses that will be brought about by autonomous commercial vehicles.

"If anyone needs to be at the table for a discussion on self-driving technology, it's the package car driver, the longhaul truck driver and the taxi driver," wrote Jim Hoffa, general president of the Teamsters, the largest union in North America, in a statement. "We are encouraged that legislators are soliciting feedback on early proposed legislation, and we firmly believe it's important that their constituents -- and that includes Teamsters -- are involved in the process and listened to throughout."

The legislation that the House will address after an August recess puts a 10,000-pound weight limit on self-driving cars that will be permitted for trials on public roads. This is a provision that will largely exclude commercial vehicles -- namely freight trucks. It's a direct result of lobbying from unions, but they know it won't last forever.

"It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see that the bill will set the stage for driverless technology into commercial transportation via Lyft or Uber or other rideshare entities," Larry Willis, president of the AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Division, told Bloomberg. "And let's be very clear here: Once you set the precedent in this bill, I think it's very likely that you are going to see the same type of regulation migrate to commercial vehicles more broadly."

Union representatives are right to be wary: A study by the Center for Global Policy Solutions estimated that the driverless vehicle future could cause the loss of up to 4 million jobs, including those of truckers, bus drivers and taxi drivers.

"This crisis is likely right around the corner," said Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of the Center for Global Policy Solutions. "We need a strong safety net that can bolster workers in the event of large-scale, rapid job losses, along with policies that can transition them to new jobs."

There are, however, job concerns on both sides of the issue. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) knows that if jobs in the autonomous vehicle sector aren't made available in her district, they will be made available elsewhere.

"There are going to be new jobs. We have to keep talking about that. This is just the beginning," Dingell told Bloomberg. "If those vehicles get built in another country, those jobs are gone."

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