Driverless Cars Will Propel Us to Productivity

Driverless Cars Will Propel Us to Productivity

Americans spend an average of 293 hours per year driving, equivalent to over seven 40-hour workweeks. That’s time that busy professionals can’t spend working or doing the activities they love.

But self-driving cars are coming to the market, and they offer a golden opportunity for us to reclaim that all-too-large chunk of our lives — if legislators and lobbyists get out of the way. Many policymakers are hesitant to approve autonomous vehicles. Nineteen states don’t even allow self-driving cars on the road — failing to embrace a technology that almost certainly promises huge productivity gains for the United States.

For self-driving cars to deliver on this promise, legislators must first allow them to be truly autonomous. In October, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed Executive Order 2018-13, allowing self-driving cars only if there’s a licensed driver prepared to take control. But these kinds of rules threaten to reduce the productivity opportunities autonomous vehicles could provide. It’s tough to prepare a report for your boss when the government requires you be ready to take the wheel at a moment’s notice.
Driverless cars also promise to make the roads safer, cutting down on traffic deaths. In 2017, 40,100 people died in car accidents in the US. These deaths don’t just devastate families, they hurt the productivity of the entire nation.

But self-driving cars can dramatically cut down on accidents, because 94 percent of crashes are the result of human error. Autonomous vehicles are never going to drive drunk or try to send a text while weaving between other drivers. To be fair, there have been highly-publicized, tragic deaths caused by self-driving cars. But these cases are talked about, in part, because they're so rare. And it's a poor representation of what driverless cars actually offer in terms of safety. According to a study by US consulting firm McKinsey & Company, driverless cars could reduce traffic deaths by 90 percent. That’s not to mention the cut in non-fatal crashes. Physical trauma and extended hospital stays will be reduced, boosting productivity overall.

Legislators and lobbyists worry that self-driving cars will kill jobs. For instance, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, a 1.4 million-member union, is campaigning against Congressional bills that could expedite the deployment of autonomous trucks. They want exemptions for vehicles over 10,000 pounds — meaning that commercial trucks would still need human drivers.

It’s true that professional drivers, from truckers to Uber drivers, may see their employment prospects take a hit (although many of these workers will still be needed for loading and unloading cargo, maintenance, and other tasks). We should try to help Americans whose jobs are being automated. But let’s not forget that the benefits of automation far outweigh the drawbacks.

In 2017, there were 2.5 million professional drivers in the United States. Automating their jobs should push many of them into more productive work. The transition, painful as it would be, would actually benefit the nation as a whole if these hard-working men and women find new jobs or start new companies, as they’re apt to do. Driverless transportation means that Americans will get easy transportation plus whatever goods and services are produced by workers who used to spend their time driving for money. This isn’t just conjecture — the Harvard Business Review notes that automating jobs and productivity gains go hand-in-hand.

As economist Richard McKenzie put it in the Wall Street Journal, "Economic progress and job destruction go hand in hand."

Professional drivers cost employers over $103 billion, so automating driving could also save businesses billions. Many companies will spend this money hiring other people, developing new products, and scaling up their operations.

And regulators can help the professional drivers who would be put out of work by automation, through championing policies like occupational licensing reform. Almost one in three American workers today need a governmental license to pursue their chosen occupation. Onerous licensing requirements make it harder for displaced workers to find new jobs. Indeed, over-licensing is especially dangerous because many of the careers that require licensing, such as cosmetologists and interior decorators, are those that automation can’t replace.

When legislators are writing rules for self-driving cars, they should look to Florida as a model. Florida allows autonomous cars on the road and doesn't require that these vehicles have a driver ready to take over. According to Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, co-founder of autonomous vehicle company Starsky Robotics, this permissive regulatory environment is one reason self-driving car companies are flocking to the Sunshine State. That means it’s working, and legislators who want to attract tomorrow’s car companies should take note.

Autonomous cars can usher in a productivity boom by automating the time-consuming task of driving. But only if we let them, and stop hamstringing this new technology with burdensome regulations.

Julian Adorney is a Young Voices contributor. He has written for National Review, Arc Digital, and The Federalist. He blogs at The Empathetic Libertarian.

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