Driverless Commute – February 16

Welcome again to Driverless Commute, presented by the global law firm Dentons, a weekly digest clocking the most important technical, legal and regulatory developments shaping the path to autonomy.

1. Field trip

Federal transportation officials have invited the various automotive, tech, state and academic stakeholders to a March 1 conference in Washington, DC, to discuss potential government regulatory and legal actions to expedite the testing and market deployment of autonomous vehicles.

According to our friends at the US Department of Transportation, the summit, which will be open to the public, is aimed at identifying “priority federal and non-federal activities that can accelerate the safe rollout” of driverless tech.

For those who avoid the Beltway at all costs, you may watch the conference via webcast, but note you MUST pre-register by February 23, 2018.

2. The economy, stupid

The scaling of autonomous vehicles will almost certainly devastate certain quarters of the job market in the developed world. While the specific contours of this new global job market aren’t immediately clear, motor vehicle operators in the logistics and freight fields are expected to bear the brunt of losses.

In the US, some 5 million people nationwide earn a living through the operation of a vehicle. By some estimates, upwards of 300,000 of these workers would be displaced from the job market annually. (In October last year, the Pew Research Center found that 8 in 10 American adults believe autonomous vehicles will result in significant job losses.)

Among fleet operations, ride-sharing firms—themselves fed at the breast of disruption—are in the vanguard of the move to uproot human drivers. Talk to anyone in leadership at the big Silicon Valley players and they’ll tell you they regard it as an imperative, and are willing to make the necessary investments to speed along the process.

Manufacturers or retailers with robust logistics or delivery networks have an obvious incentive in eliminating the human factor from the supply chain, but so far most have played a cautious hand. Adding to the slow-walk is mounting pressure from labor groups, who have recently attempted to contractually bar delivery giants UPS and FedEx from utilizing autonomous delivery vehicles. (It’s no coincidence that online retail and cloud-computing heavy Amazon just announced a new, branded delivery platform to compete with existing players in Los Angeles.)

This week, Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers released the findings of a comprehensive manufacturing sector survey that probed companies’ interest (or trepidation) in eliminating the human factor from the supply chain. The numbers (PDF):

  • Fewer than 10 percent of manufacturers have adopted autonomous technology within their operations, though roughly as many hope to make the move within three years.
  • Nearly 60 percent of manufacturers cited the high cost of autonomous vehicles as the primary barrier to adoption within their operations.
  • Nine out of ten US manufacturers think widespread use of AV big trucks would drive down costs by 25 percent. PwC’s analysis found that autonomous long-haul trucking would save manufacturers nearly 30 percent in transportation costs by 2040.

3. Portlandia

While state governments across the US have raced to embrace regulatory regimes that would clear obstacles to the testing of autonomous vehicles within their boundaries, lawmakers in Oregon curiously blocked a proposal this week that would have allowed driverless cars on public roads.

Money quote from Democratic state representative Paul Evans: “I do not believe that creating a hostage environment inside a vehicle moving 60 miles an hour is something any of us really want to get to in the long term.”

4. Parting question: Turbulence for air carriers ahead?

The emergence of blitzing-fast locomotives have sharply eroded the value proposition of air travel across Asia and Europe. But could that same trend—travelers’ preference to avoid the ordeal sometimes-indignities of air travel when possible—portend similar trouble for domestic air carriers when autonomous vehicles reach peak saturation?

A recent survey by the Journal of Advanced Transportation found that European and Asian travelers preferred trains to planes if their route registered less than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles). While vehicles can’t compete with planes on measure of speed, could the convenience factor of an autonomous vehicle tip the scales away from domestic air travel and back to the road?

It’s a question whose answer is many years off—as many have posited, the first wave of autonomous vehicles will be fleet oriented—but how the airlines prepare for the eventuality is an interesting thought exercise.

The Driverless Commute, a subscription-based service, is provided by Dentons’ global Autonomous Vehicles team. If you believe a colleague or associate would benefit from this service, please share this link so they may subscribe.

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Eric Tanenblatt

About Eric Tanenblatt

Eric Tanenblatt is the Global Chair of Public Policy and Regulation of Dentons, the world's largest law firm. He also leads the firm's US Public Policy Practice, leveraging his three decades of experience at the very highest levels of the federal and state governments.

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James Richardson

About James Richardson

James Richardson is a strategic communications counselor with 15 years’ experience advising presidential candidates, Global Fortune 500 executives, national nonprofits, and sovereign governments on strategic communications and reputation management. He helps lead Dentons’ 3D Global Affairs practice.

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