Driverless vehicles could eliminate millions of jobs in the future, from cabbies to truckers to food delivery workers. But the companies that are hoping to hasten the adoption of this disruptive technology don’t want to seem callous to this brewing labor crisis, so they are joining forces to study the “human impact” of robot cars.
The Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity (PTIO) is a newly formed group comprised of most of the major companies that are building and testing on self-driving cars. This includes legacy automakers like Ford, Toyota, and Daimler; tech giants like Waymo (née Google), Uber, and Lyft; and logistics providers like FedEx and the American Trucking Association. The new organization is being formed as a 501(c)(6), which allows it to accept donations like a nonprofit and lobby government like a chamber of commerce.
“Concern for the safety of workers and the public is paramount to PTIO,” the group’s executive director Maureen Westphal, said in an email to The Verge, “and safe deployment of [autonomous vehicle] technology is fundamental to securing better job opportunities for workers, so we plan to engage with a variety of concerned stakeholders already having conversations and planning for this transition to an autonomous vehicle future.”
The group has its work cut out for it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 3.8 million people operate motor vehicles for their livelihood. This includes truck driving, the most common profession in 29 US states, which employs about 1.7 million people. Many expect self-driving trucks to be among the first autonomous vehicles to hit the road. When autonomous vehicle saturation peaks, US drivers could see job losses at a rate of 25,000 a month, or 300,000 a year, according to a report from Goldman Sachs Economics Research released last year.
So what can we expect from a group funded by some of the biggest companies that are working on this technology?
In the first six months, the PTIO has set its goals to: 1) begin to develop a well-rounded and data-based understanding of the impact and implications of autonomous vehicles on the future of work, 2) solicit the expertise, concerns, and aspirations of a variety of interested parties, and 3) begin to foster awareness of existing and near-term career opportunities for workers during the transition to a new autonomous vehicle-enabled economy.
For some of these companies, this isn’t their first time at the coalition rodeo. In 2016, Ford, Google, Uber, Lyft, and Volvo formed the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group with the express purpose of advocating autonomous driving. That group, led by former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration head David Strickland, lobbies on behalf of the autonomous vehicle industry.
“While the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets is doing very important work on issues related to autonomous vehicle safety and implementation, the Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity believes that while society prepares for the practical impact of autonomous vehicles, we must also focus our efforts on the human impact as it relates to Americans’ careers and jobs,” Westphal said.
All of these companies have a vested interest in selling autonomous driving technology to a skeptical public. So how much independence can we expect this group to have from the financial motivations of its corporate backers? “Part of PTIO’s mission is to promote debate on these issues,” said Westphal, a former press secretary for Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer and ex-communications director for the American Beverage Association. “Our hope is that in doing so we will help bring consensus around some proactive policies and initiatives that help ensure everyone benefits from these technological innovations. At the same time, we realize by promoting debate we may generate conversations that are uncomfortable for some stakeholders, including our members.”