Editorial: No time for cruise control

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

Thinking about new federal regulations sounds pretty boring … then you get passed by an 80 mph semi with no driver behind the wheel.

Among the many behind-the-scenes actions taking place in the Trump administration is the crafting of regulations related to driverless vehicles. It is a topic that deserves considerable thought. It is a technology that could change the American way of life more than most.

Action on Thursday gets us a step closer. The Trump administration updated its driverless vehicle policy, and for the first time officially opened the door for big tractor-trailers and other semi trucks to be driverless.

The policy states that the government will “no longer assume” that a human needs to be in the cab of a truck in order for it to safely operate. An article in the Washington Post states the administration plans to ease the federal process for exempting trucks and other vehicles from existing safety standards that might inhibit the use of automation. Instead, companies simply will be asked to demonstrate that their vehicles are likely to achieve “an equivalent level of safety.”

Here is a place where we may want to slow down and think a bit more. It is important to craft regulations that give companies enough freedom that they can truly innovate. But it also is easy to imagine the Trump administration taking a position that all regulations are bad.

Driverless technology would have a massive impact on our transportation network, one of our most far-flung pieces of infrastructure in America. The fact that the transportation industry reaches essentially every corner of America means the federal government may be in the best position to provide meaningful regulation. A system that relies on each state to pass its own licensing and roadway rules and other such matters is likely going to be mighty inefficient.

The Trump administration is calling for a joint research effort between the departments of commerce, transportation and labor to study what impact driverless technology would have on the American workforce. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said she remains “extremely concerned” about the impact increased automation would have on the nation’s workforce, according to the Post’s article.

Such study is a good idea, but moderation is advised there as well. It will be easy to let change scare us away from innovation. No doubt, driverless technology would displace some workers. But if done correctly, it could make for safer roadways and for an economy that can become much more productive. America is in need of a game-changing technological advancement. Driverless technology could be the next great American export, and the jobs and spinoff ideas it creates could very well make up for any job losses caused by the technology.

The really noticeable changes from driverless technology — think of new car designs that don’t include a steering wheel — are likely still several years away. But last week’s policy announcement is a sign the day is getting closer.

It also is a reminder that not every lasting impact from the Trump administration comes via a tweet. It is easy and understandable that many people get consumed by all the nastiness and division that President Trump often creates. It makes it easy to forget this administration — like all the ones before it — is making thousands of decisions that will change America for years to come. We should pay attention to it all. This is no time for cruise control.


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