Driverless truck research in the United States and Europe is raising concerns about possible flawed technology and drivers’ livelihood. Soon Australia will feel its impact. Tony Sheldon writes
IF YOU are to believe the headlines, truck drivers will soon be a thing of the past as driverless vehicles take over. Technology companies and truck and car makers are no doubt putting resources into the driverless model.
Uber recently set up a research centre for driverless cars while in California alone there are 29 companies that have received test permits for driverless vehicles. Some companies predict a driverless future in the not too distant. Analysts Morgan Stanley says they will be freely available on the mass market by 2026 with car ownership extinct by 2046.
The Australian Federal Government appears to back these kinds of changes to our society, with Malcolm Turnbull saying in his first statement as prime minister: “We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the volatility in change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it.”
No doubt the Government has bought into the sales pitch as to why a driverless future will be a better one: safer roads and a cleaner environment because of less congestion.
But from a transport industry point of view, there are a few issues to consider. Technology is far from infallible and we can see this in our everyday lives. Our banks regularly announce problems with their systems where people are locked out from accessing their money online or at ATMs. Handing over control of heavy vehicles to machines will involve taking a punt on the technology never failing.
There is also a moral issue: are we happy for a machine to be given control over choosing whose lives to protect in the event of an unexpected road incident such as a pedestrian stepping out?
Not only is technology infallible, it is also open to being hacked. Two years ago hackers tasked with testing software in the US were able to take control of a Jeep Cherokee while it was driving. There is no doubt a potential exists for hackers to disrupt traffic or commit acts of terrorism through this technology. Is that a risk we are willing to take?
But the bigger issue for our industry comes down to one thing: jobs.
Trucking provides tens of thousands of jobs across Australia. Truck drivers, like the bulk of the community, aren’t app developers. They are hard-working members of our communities who will need quality employment in the future. Anything less abandons them, their loved ones and future generations.
Truck driver Frank Black has been involved in forums on this issue and will feature in an ABC Lateline television program in August on the driverless future.
“The experience a truck driver brings to the job in anticipating what might happen up the road or around the bend can’t be replaced by technology,” Frank says.
“I’ve been a truck driver for 30 years driving my own truck. It seems a bit far-fetched for governments and companies to assume they can replace that experience overnight.”
Professor Jim Stanford, director of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, summed it up well when he said during a session at our recent Transport Workers Union (TWU) National Council that the “new economy” is not so new since workers are still fighting for dignity and security in their jobs.
The TWU has been calling for some time for the Federal Government to adopt a strategy to deal with technological changes which are having the effect of reducing conditions for employees and drastically cutting certain jobs altogether. The government’s job is to regulate our society and it needs to do this to protect people’s livelihoods.
As part of the TWU’s affiliation to the International Transport Workers’ Federation and my own role as chair of its Road Transport Section, we have been involved in a report* by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the future of trucking.
It shows more than two million drivers across the US and Europe could be directly displaced by driverless technology by 2030.
The report recommends that governments should put in place mechanisms to deal with the transition to driverless trucks, such as advisory boards made up of groups from the trucking industry, a permit system to control the speed of uptake of driverless trucks and funding to help displaced truck drivers.
But there is another dimension to this issue. While some are already heralding the dawn of the driverless future, there has been a quiet caution on it from the tech companies themselves. The technology to develop driverless vehicles has been in existence since 1995 but has failed to result in mass production. Suing an $800 billion tech giant over a death because the software allowed it to happen could cripple the business.
The caution which is possibly being exercised by these companies should alert our government to hold off on their breathless endorsement of technology and disruption. Because technology will only work if it serves all of society not just the few.
*For the full OECD report Managing the Transition to Driverless Road Freight Transport go to the website: bit.ly/ITF_Report
TONY SHELDON is the national secretary of the Transport Workers Union of Australia. Contact Tony at: NSW Transport Workers Union, Transport House, 388-390 Sussex Street, Sydney, NSW, 2000. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.