Special Interest Groups: A Blessing and a Curse in the American Political Process
For my final article in my article series with exerts taken directly from my book, The Future is Autonomous: The U.S. and China Race to Develop the Driverless Car, I will discuss the issue of special interest groups in the U.S. I will also be tying this section in with the long-haul freight trucking industry. This industry is vital to support the logistical supply chain in the U.S. which serves as the lifeblood of the American economy and manufacturing industry.
This is not a uniquely American problem, as other countries have special interest groups which influence the country’s political agenda. However, these groups can have a profound impact on how tax money is spent, or not spent, on different projects and services. This is particularly true because state nad local governments control a large amount of money for a wide range of products, such as new road and public transit infrastructure and repairs to existing infrastructure, schools, teachers, police offices, park maintenance, and a variety of other products and services.
Back in the 1920s, streetcars were the preferred mode of commuting to work in the United States. Beginning in the 1800s, horse-drawn streetcars that ran on tracks were common.
The horses were replaced by electric streetcars in the 1880s. They were still basically the same and became much more popular as a result. At its peak, there were seventeen thousand miles of streetcar lines in the US and they were a feature in every major city and suburban area in the country. What happened to streetcars, and why do only roughly five percent of American workers commute to work using public transit now?
A popular conspiracy theory speculated GM bought streetcar makers specifically to close them and tear up tracks to make room for automobiles. The truth is streetcar companies went bankrupt and were forced to shut down. There are two main reasons for the financial failings of this previously dominant mode of transportation. The first is vehicles would drive on the track as well as on the roads. This caused traffic congestion, which prevented streetcar from reaching their destinations on time. The second problem was state and city leaders would force streetcar companies to lower their ticket prices. Increased congestion on the roads and the lack of the ability to raise ticket prices killed the streetcar companies and the industry overall in most cities.
Why did the US fail to develop another public transit system to serve as the primary means of worker commutes? A big part of the problem is special interests. This is a problem an authoritarian government, such as the Chinese government, does not have to deal with. One group in particular, Americans for Prosperity led by Charles and David Koch, fight against new public transit projects at the local and national level. The Koch brothers are two oil billionaires who believe in a libertarian agenda against high taxes and big government. One common victim of this lobbying effort is the public transit systems.
It can be a positive or negative externality of these efforts, depending on your viewpoint, that more people driving on roads also helps their bottom line as oil industry executives. Vehicle manufacturing companies provide either tacit or open support for the fight to block new public transit systems because they see this as beneficial to their vehicle sales. These public transit systems include light-rail trains, bus routes, metro systems, and other projects in cities all over the US. These cities include Nashville, Phoenix, Little Rock, southeast Michigan, and central Utah.
The Koch brothers also donate millions of dollars to the campaigns of elected officials at the national and local levels who support their interests. This lobbying effort is critical to achieve their desired policy outcomes. At the local level, they fund and organize grassroots efforts which hire people to go door-to-door to argue against state funding for new public transit projects. Their financial support to conservative politicians during and after their campaigns also grants them leverage in arguing against these transit systems. The money they spend fuels their efforts and leads to states cancelling public transit projects all over the country.
While perhaps not as well-funded or influential as the Koch brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, there will be people negatively affected by autonomous vehicles. These vehicles might cause truck drivers, taxi drivers, ride-hailing drivers, and postal delivery drivers to lose their jobs. Members of Congress and autonomous vehicle companies must be aware of the economic damages they will cause people in the US. Automation does not kill jobs entirely. There will eventually be more jobs created than lost by autonomous vehicles, but these jobs will not be the same people had before and policymakers should acknowledge such and plan accordingly.
Autonomous vehicles have already been driven on public roads in certain cities in the US to test them. The reaction to these tests has not always been favorable. I talked with Dr. Sven Beiker, founder and managing director of Silicon Valley Mobility. I asked him about the positive and negative feedback he received from people in Silicon Valley related to autonomous vehicles. He said, “Very similar to Arizona, some people in the general public are not happy. They are slitting tires or throwing pebbles at these vehicles. Some people want to just game these vehicles and cut right in front of them.” Backlash against these vehicles in a more conservative place like Arizona makes sense if they do not want things to change. Knowing people are acting like this in Silicon Valley, the epicenter of technological innovation in the US, should be slightly troubling for autonomous vehicle companies.
The passenger experience in one of the autonomous shuttles in Silicon Valley is not supported enthusiastically, even by supporters of autonomous vehicles. In my conversation with Dr. Beiker, he talked about taking his eighty-year-old father on a ride in one of these shuttles. His father was unimpressed, saying, “My dad was like oh my god this is so boring. I can walk faster than this thing.” Dr. Beiker tried to argue to his father this was the future. Apparently the future was still a few years away from being a fast and reliable transportation option for his father.
Dr. Beiker pointed out these autonomous vehicles are only test vehicles. It remains to be seen what will happen once these vehicles are officially on the market and serving as “robotaxis.” How this initial rollout goes and whether people are gradually introduced to the incredible benefits autonomous vehicles can bring to society will be vital for the success of the industry in the US.
Passenger autonomous vehicles still require both technological improvements and legislative action to become mainstream and integrated successfully into the US’s transportation system. Autonomous trucks, on the other hand, have generated significant interest by many different companies in recent years. This is because they can more easily be integrated into the existing legal framework governing trucks and the technological task is not quite as daunting, particularly if the autonomous truck is driven on a highway and is closely following a human-driven truck.
Nearly contactless delivery represents a key benefit for delivery of goods to people, and the delivery of goods by freight in trucks represents a massive need for autonomy to fill. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ (BLS) 2018 study, trucks transport seventy percent of the goods in the US. This is far greater than the amount of goods transported by boat, train, or plane.
Driver retirement is also a concern because the average age for a truck driver in the US is fifty-five years old. There are many drivers in their sixties and seventies. The lack of drivers, coupled with consumer demand for more goods to be transported to more places as fast as possible, means there could be a shortage of up to one million trucks in the near term. There is a vital need for autonomy to ease some of the burden for this critical industry by providing autonomous trucks to keep the US’s economy running smoothly.
The logistical transport system supply chain, or the system by which goods are transported from factories or ports to distribution centers to people’s houses, serves as the lifeblood of the American economy. Virind Gujral is the Founder of Transformation to Intelligent Automation (T2Ia). He has worked in the logistics supply chain in the US for over thirty years. He described how automation can benefit the logistics system. He explained, “Whatever we manufacture we need to get the ingredients to the production areas, and once it has been produced to send it to the distribution centers and from distribution centers to individual homes.”
Gujral stated this supply chain operates very efficiently in the US. It is vital to our day-to-day operations as a country. He is in favor of introducing autonomous trucks because he says, “There is always room for more improvement and with the volume so high, a small amount of improvement goes to millions and billions of dollars.” As described above, this vital logistics system may need automation just to keep at its current rate of efficiency sooner rather than later.
There has been substantial interest in autonomous trucking by autonomous vehicle companies in recent years. Leading autonomous vehicle company Waymo’s CEO John Krafcik described the importance of this trend toward delivering goods to people in an online article from Reuters. According to Krafcik, “The reality right now is that goods delivery is a bigger market than moving people.” Waymo, which will be featured in another chapter in this book, previously focused on establishing a fleet of autonomous taxis. While it has not abandoned this goal, it recently signed pilot program deals with UPS and Walmart for goods delivery in its fleet of trucks. It calls these trucks Waymo Via.
In the last seven months from when the article was published in May 2020, investors gave six billion dollars in funds to over two dozen goods and grocery delivery companies. These included companies with everything from delivery drones, sidewalk delivery robots, other delivery vehicles, and even long-haul freight trucks. Companies like Waymo recognized the need to assist the freight sector in the US and were quick to capitalize on that opportunity.
Companies’ urgency to jump on an opportunity to generate money in the long-haul trucking industry is great, but wouldn’t this lead to mass layoffs of truck drivers?
As mentioned above, there is an opening in the trucking industry because many divers have retired or will likely retire soon. Even though automation for freight trucks is easier than for vehicles in crowded city streets, researchers at MIT released a study describing the future of automation in trucking as a mixture of human and automated trucks. There would be a platoon of trucks, they argue, led by a truck drive by a human and followed closely by several autonomous trucks.
While the authors of the study argue this would not have a drastic impact on the industry, there would likely not be safety operators in these autonomous trucks. They also argued they did not anticipate autonomous vehicles to be widespread in more than just a limited area of operation within the next ten years. With the effect spread over a period of ten or more years, it is more likely the truck drivers, and the industry in general, would be able to adapt to these changes.
Autonomous vehicles represent a potentially revolutionary change in the transit system. As with all revolutions, there will be winners and losers in the short and long term. Industry leaders and analysts say advances in the autonomous vehicle industry will create more jobs than will be lost over time. The road to adoption of these vehicles on a large scale by society will have some potential roadblocks from people impacted negatively in the early stages. The long-term benefits would be a boon to everyone. Hopefully policies will be created for people who will lose their jobs in the short term so the long-term benefits can be reached.
While slightly worrying for truck drivers, autonomous vehicle companies have also entered the long-haul freight trucking industry to support the vital supply chain system in the US. The shortage of drivers for the growing demand and efforts by companies to include human drivers in the platoon of vehicles will lessen the job loss in this sector.
There will need to be new regulations, sooner rather than later, for job retraining efforts for taxi drivers, delivery vehicle drivers, and other people at risk of losing their jobs because of the introduction of autonomous vehicles. The US has had little success with these retraining policies in the past. According to an article in The Atlantic, efforts at creating federally organize plans have been popular among policymakers even before the Reagan administration. They are unsuccessful because people do not know about them, the classes are disjointed and not relevant to these people’s desired work fields, and the job training programs don’t force employers to pay workers an adequate wage.
It is unlikely the US will adopt a similar system to the apprenticeship system, which is common and successful in Germany. In this system, workers become apprentices to jobs in different industries. However, the US does have a vast community college system with affordable degree options for people looking to learn new skills to compete in the job market and potentially earn higher wages. Incentive structures such as tax credits for employers who hire workers from retraining programs at decent wages could also be created to assist in this retraining process.
State and local governments, which fund over four trillion dollars for public projects and services every year, will face dire financial decisions for the next several years due to the economic losses from the COVID-19 pandemic. These projects and services include funding for public schools, garbage and recycle truck drivers, parks, museum upkeep, and funding for new infrastructure or repairs for current infrastructure projects.
Estimates by local governments and organizations, such as the US Conference of Mayors and the National League of Cities, project revenue losses of between fifteen and forty-five percent. This would mean reductions of up to $1.75 trillion per year for all of the essential projects and services state and local governments provide. Therefore, states and cities must make tough budgetary choices.
It will be crucial for companies in the autonomous vehicle industry to advocate for funding for infrastructure projects and educational services to assist the people who would lose their jobs in the short term with the adoption of autonomous vehicles by society. I have discussed things such as the importance of things like 5G wireless network connections and “New Infrastructure” projects like smart streetlights. However, basic infrastructure repairs such as repaving and repainting roads are essential for autonomous vehicles to drive safely on public roads. These infrastructure improvements would benefit both conventional and autonomous vehicles to drive more safely.
Ultimately, national, state, and local governments and organizations need to change to allow for a more seamless introduction of autonomous vehicles into society while protecting the workforce negatively affected by the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Policies also need to change and adapt over time, as well as the industries involved, for autonomous vehicles to succeed in the US.
I hope you enjoyed my article series related to the difficulties of public trust and acceptance of autonomous vehicles in the U.S. Other articles in future article series will also discuss this topic because it is crucial for the industry’s success or failure.
However, now I would like ot change gears (pun intended) to discuss a different set of issues in an entirely different place. For my next article series, I will discuss China’s efforts to build its high-tech industry and specifically autonomous vehicle industry. I have over 10 years of experience studying Chinese policy, economy, and the Mandarin Chinese language. I do not claim to be an expert on everything related to China, but the situation there is very different from that of the US with a different public-private partnership, consumer behavior, business practices, and much more. Stay tuned, the fun continues soon!
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