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File photo, the Waymo driverless ...
Eric Risberg, Associated Press file
A Waymo driverless car is displayed during a Google event, in San Francisco.

Much has been made in the pages of this newspaper, most recently by state Rep. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, about the potential benefits of driverless vehicles: increased access for the poor and elderly; transportation for the disabled; increased safety; and more free time. Putting aside for the moment the serious safety concerns that we at Colorado AFL-CIO’s Transportation Caucus have, we would welcome improved access to transportation for marginalized populations — a goal we share.

But this rose-colored narrative obscures the very real human cost of driverless vehicles: over 67,600 working Coloradans could lose their jobs, as estimated by the Bell Policy Center. Colorado is not prepared to weather this economic shock, and last year’s Autonomous Vehicle bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Bridges, does nothing to address the potentially devastating impacts to Colorado’s driver-dependent workers and their families. While the shift to driverless vehicles will likely create new jobs, many will be in the technology sector, which offers little comfort to workers who have spent their entire career on the road.

Doug Brees, 63, has been a truck driver with UPS for three decades. He worries about his 28-year old son and driving partner, Don Jarosak, who makes UPS sleeper cab runs from Denver to New Jersey: “My job has provided well for me and my family through the years, but what about my son and his family?  Will he and thousands of other drivers wake up some day to discover they have no jobs, and all that is left for them are jobs making minimum wage?”

Doug’s worry is both real and urgent. The 2016 White House Report on Intelligence, Automation, and the Economy paints a sobering picture: “Experienced workers who lose their jobs and have to start over find themselves, on average, earning wages at least 10 percent less than what they earned in the jobs they lost, and workers with more than 20 years of experience in their prior job face wages that are nearly a quarter less than they had previously been making.” But this isn’t just about dollars and cents. Research by UCLA sociologist Jennie E. Brand has shown that job displacement is associated with declining physical and psychological well-being; social withdrawal; family disruption; and even lower levels of children’s attainment and well-being.

Thus the full human cost of embracing driverless vehicles cannot be represented in any one statistic. A data point doesn’t capture the pain, disappointment and even fear of the workers who, after laboring for decades and giving their all to Colorado’s employers, receive that pink slip through no fault of their own. Subject to displacement, they will grapple with their new reality, significantly adjusting their lifestyle, likely delaying retirement and having to enter a new career in what should be the golden years of their working life. And all of this while being stripped of seniority, their sense of familiarity and purpose, and making three-fourths of their past wages.

And what about the cost to our social fabric when driverless vehicles hit Colorado roads, devoid of any human connection or interaction? Richard Medina, who has driven eight years with Green Taxi, says: “The human element is a big part of my job.  At times I feel like a counselor.  People vent problems and we discuss their issues during ride.  I’ve had people crying in my taxi and give me a hug after we talk.”

And yet, the corporations who stand to make the most from this driverless future — Google, Tesla, GM — have so far completely escaped taking any responsibility for the livelihoods they are poised to destroy. And our political leaders seem content to let them get off scot-free, refusing to require that they ensure the workers displaced by their driverless vehicles are taken into consideration. As Coloradans, we can’t let these big corporations take us for a ride. We must not simply accept their slick marketing pitches and promises that these vehicles will be a net positive.

Rather, it is incumbent upon our state and federal representatives to proactively address the job displacement and safety issues that come with driverless vehicles. We must create a 21st Century economy that ensures our society does not blindly pursue automation at the expense of worker dignity and security.  Automation is here to stay. If we don’t draw a line in the sand now and demand protection for these drivers, we’ll have little hope of protecting whatever industry is next.

Dennis Dougherty is the executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO.

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