For transportation workers, driverless cars are a safety concern at the office — Streetsblog USA

After a series of crashes and near misses with driverless cars, a large coalition of U.S. transportation workers is joining pedestrians in calling for more regulation of the emerging technology — and sending a reminder that untested autonomous vehicles are increasingly becoming workplace safety a problem too.

In a letter to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Highway Administration chief Anne Carson, a coalition of 27 transportation unions called on the federal government to expand an investigation that began in October after a pedestrian in San Francisco was dragged under a robotic-driven from General Motor’s AV division, Cruise.

Unions welcomed the inquiry but also stressed that clamping down on one company would not adequately address the potential dangers of the larger AV industry, which tests its vehicles on public roads where countless pedestrians walk –and where hundreds of thousands of people make their living. And this includes not only taxi drivers, but also bus operators, cyclists, road crews and many more.

“Transit and sanitation workers are shut down, cut off and trapped in their vehicles by driverless cars moving erratically,” the group wrote. “Construction and maintenance workers who are at risk on our roads every day have seen driverless cars enter construction sites… Let’s be clear: [AVs] are dangerous and unsustainable in their current form.”

In addition to tightening controls on companies like Alphabet’s Waymo and Amazon-owned Zoox, the unions are pushing for the feds to require robocar operators to report when their cars do dangerous things like enter bike lanes, nose into crosswalks or cutting into firefighters’ cordons—even if that behavior doesn’t necessarily lead to a crash.

And most importantly, they’re calling for an “updated department-wide automated vehicle policy that sets firm expectations for these vehicles” — and makes it clear that worker safety and support comes first.

“We want a broad policy framework that everyone will have to follow so that we can ensure that there is appropriate oversight for the safety of any company that wants to enter our public roads with this type of technology,” said Greg Regan, president of the Department for transportation deals of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella organization to which all the signatories of the letter belong. “And frankly, I think that’s a better way to do policy than this kind of whack-a-mole approach [we’ve got now].”

AV laws by state, as of January 2023. Graphics: Eno Center for Transportation

Regan added that the union’s campaign for robo-car safety began long before Cruz’s high-profile fall, which also prompted California’s DMV to suspend the company’s permit to operate in the Golden State. (As Streetsblog SF’s Roger Ruddick astutely noted, drivers who hit pedestrians every day — including the hit-and-run driver who threw the walker in San Francisco under the wheels of the driverless car — rarely face comparable censure.) So it’s from crucial to note that while the letter is about saving lives, unions are also working to save the livelihoods of their members if the fantasy of autonomous vehicles ever becomes a reality.

“Some people don’t believe that fully autonomous vehicles will ever really be viable, and others think it will be at least 20, 30 years before that happens,” Regan added. “But now it is our duty to at least prepare for a situation in which [that technology] is real. And part of that means investing in vocational training for workers and in policies that ensure they can move between jobs without losing their benefits.

Given that the average driverless taxi currently requires an average of 1.5 remote human operations managers to keep it running, robots don’t seem to be coming for our transportation jobs just yet. Regan believes the safety threats they pose to U.S. roads, however, are very real — and real change must come from the top down.

“[We need] federal laws, not just a patchwork of state and local laws across the country,” Regan added.

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