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State of the Art: For the Debaters: What Shall We Do About the Tech Careening Our Way?

Though less than a year old, Otto has a fleet of six trucks now constantly driving across California to test its technology, which the company aims to sell as an aftermarket add-on to trucking companies sometime in the next few years. When it’s for sale, Otto’s system will drive the truck fully on freeways; the driver will take over on all other roads, as well as assist in other functions (refueling, filling out paperwork).

Last month, the ride-hailing giant Uber spent close to $ 700 million to acquire Otto, a move that will most likely accelerate the technology’s progress to market. And Otto is just one of several manufacturers working to automate trucking. According to Matthias Kässer, an analyst at the consulting firm McKinsey, a third of trucks on the road will be able to drive themselves in most circumstances by 2025.

How Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton think about autonomous trucks is in some ways a test case for their ideas about technology generally. It might reveal how they would weigh the benefits of innovation — which usually accrue diffusely to the nation at large — against the particular burdens borne by a small group (the truck drivers who might lose their jobs, in this case).

Their answer might also illuminate how they would balance competing advances and losses for the economy, the labor market, health and safety and the environment. More fundamentally, their thoughts on trucks could give us a look into their deepest ideas about technology. Are they more inclined toward bold, optimistic grabs at the future, or to recoil at the potentially devastating possibilities of its being unleashed?


Credit Stuart Goldenberg

In an interview with LinkedIn in June, Mrs. Clinton suggested she was wrestling with the issue. “You know, driverless cars may be an exciting new step in transportation, but that means a lot of trucks and cabbies and Uber drivers and a lot of other people may well lose jobs. So how do we think about that?” She suggested a few policy ideas, including retraining, but backed away from the idea of a universal basic income.

As far as I can tell, Mr. Trump has not talked about self-driving trucks.

Lior Ron, one of the co-founders of Otto, argues the technology will be a boon to just about everyone in today’s trucking business, especially the hundreds of thousands of owner-operator truckers who make about $ 60,000 a year on the road. That’s slightly above the median American income, but is unpredictable and comes with a lot of backbreaking work.

“A new truck costs $ 160,000 to $ 200,000, and they can basically only drive it nine hours a day,” Mr. Ron said. With Otto’s technology, the driver would be able to double his output — he could drive all day, then take a nap while the rig barrels along the road, then come back to driving.

“The truck is always productive,” Mr. Ron said. “They’re making more money, because they can use it more. They’re seeing their families more often, because they can finish their long-haul routes faster. And most importantly, they’re safer.”

The technology is not there yet. During a recent ride on the freeways surrounding Otto’s San Francisco headquarters, an Otto driver and engineer showed me how the prototype was working. After self-driving was flipped on, the rig handled most conditions fairly well — it steered itself around bends and maintained a consistent distance from other vehicles.

But about a half-dozen times during the 20-minute ride, the cab emitted a sharp beep warning the driver that it detected some trouble, and that it needed him to immediately take over. The engineer noted each of these instances; back at the office, Otto’s techies will examine each incident to teach the system better tricks.

For truck drivers, the benefits of automation are less certain. Kara Deniz, a spokeswoman for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, told me the union had not issued any policy decisions on automation because there were more questions than answers about the impact of self-driving vehicles. “We believe experienced, skilled drivers will be needed well into the future,” she added.

Several truckers I talked to were resistant to automation.

“The idea that we’ll go to automated trucks and then drivers will sleep while the truck drives — not a chance in hell. I would never do that,” Wade Dowden, 32, who’s been driving a truck for 10 years, told me while he was on the road in Houston.

Mr. Dowden is no technophobe. He said easy access to live maps and mobile entertainment had made everything about driving a truck much less stressful than before. Now Mr. Dowden spends his days listening to audiobooks and podcasts, and when he’s not driving, he watches Netflix and studies for a degree in transportation management.

Yet he isn’t ready to turn over his truck to a computer.

“It would make the job not worth doing,” he said. “Once you’re only paying a guy to drive the final miles into a city, we’re certainly not going to get a raise for that.”

That leads back to what Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump might say about self-driving trucks if they were asked on Monday. There are many potential policy ideas to delay, accelerate or ease this transition. They could ban self-driving trucks entirely. Or they could also institute a retraining program for drivers. Or do nothing and see what happens.

Mr. Dowden, though, has no faith either will do anything meaningful to address the issue, because he thinks both are out of touch. “They just don’t know what’s going on,” he said.

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