The Shadow Side of Self-Driving Trucks

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Last month my wife and I went on a short Caribbean vacation. As I was driving, I tried to engage the cruise control on a car far more advanced than our 12-year-old Suzuki when I noticed a button that read “driver-assist.” So, I engaged the driver-assist feature and moved my hands away from the car’s steering wheel. With a strange mix of exhilaration, hesitation, excitement, and dread, I watched as this car drove and steered itself down the road. Of course, I know these AI-enabled features are far from the technology used by self-driving vehicles. However, it gave me a delightful and exhilarating demonstration of the capabilities of this fantastic technology. But it also made me think about how AI can negatively impact the most vulnerable communities.

While I managed the Science, Faith, and Hope project at Esperanza, a non-profit serving Hispanic communities in Philadelphia, I had several conversations about AI and the real-life consequences for Hispanic and other BIPOC communities. For one, we discussed the potential impact of self-driving long-haul trucks on these vulnerable populations. I remember saying something like, “but that is still far off.” Then, to my astonishment, one of our AI experts explained that companies like UPS and Navistar are already testing self-driving trucks in fully autonomous depot-to-depot runs.

Why am I highlighting this seemingly innocuous and beneficial technological advancement? Because even when this technology can benefit the transportation industry, it has the potential for significant drawbacks for BIPOC communities. While the vast majority of truck drivers are white (63 percent), Hispanics and other BIPOC represent the other 37 percent of the labor force. Consequently, this job loss would translate into financial hardships, housing problems, food insecurity, and other socioeconomic problems for at-risk families.

AI: A Pressing Reality

Jair Ribeiro, AI enthusiast and writer, explains that self-driving trucks will move beyond constrained testing environments to routinely transport freight on public roads during the next few years. As a result, technology giants like Volvo, Daimler Trucks, Ford Otosan, and others are ramping up their efforts to conduct road tests, increase the production of autonomous vehicles, and work to secure their place in an industry that is expected to generate $12.67 billion by 2025. What is more, researchers explain that long-haul autonomous trucks are safer because the road conditions they navigate (i.e., moving cargo through interstate systems and expressways) are less complicated than the street traffic faced by self-driving passenger cars.

Clearly, self-driving autonomous trucks will make truck drivers a relic of the past. The industry needs an army of engineers, mathematicians, and technicians to keep these systems working safely and at optimal levels. This seismic industry shift presents a prime opportunity for helping BIPOC students see STEM as a viable alternative. History has demonstrated that people of color have tremendous capacities for science. Therefore, we can be instrumental in helping a new generation that will guide the development of cutting-edge technologies. We can use our social capital, influence, and collective wisdom to help guide this shift in ways that are equitable and just.

  • Ross Dawson, author and futurist, writes about the implications of AI for the trucking industry.
  • Bloomberg’s Kyle Stock presents a compelling argument for self-driving trucks to address driver shortages.
  • Author Stephen Maher unpacks how long-haul autonomous trucks will produce task displacement and negatively affect people working in this industry.
  • SftC can help your congregation design, implement, and run programs that address science, including AI as a Christian vocation. If you need technical help in these areas, please contact us.
  • In the video lecture “Contemporary Significance of Artificial Intelligence for Theology,” Professor Ryan Haecker examines how theology can influence our understanding of AI.
  • In an interview with technologist Matt York, Greg guides a conversation about how we can use technology to benefit those in the margins.

STEM: A Vocational Call

My work at Esperanza focused on promoting effective dialogue between Hispanic communities of faith, scientists, laity, and students to foster a comprehensive understanding of the confluence of faith and science. This project aimed to promote the idea that science can be seen as a Christian vocation. Recently, one of our surveys revealed that, while most Hispanics are willing to accept medical advancements, they see other areas of scientific inquiry as contrary to their faith. Therefore, parents of color are wary of what they perceive as careers that could be detrimental to their children’s faith. Paired with myriad socioeconomic barriers, it is not hard to see why BIPOC people are underrepresented in STEM.

One of our guiding principles is rooted in promoting and enhancing equity and participation in the science dialogue among racially and theologically diverse constituencies. For example, during a recent meeting with our Diversity Advisory Council at Howard University School of Divinity, one of the recurring themes was the lack of representation of Christians of color in STEM. Additionally, our advisors highlighted the economic disadvantages that this reality exacts on our communities, the sense of alienation it generates among our people, and the deep hopelessness it engenders. While there is no easy answer to this quandary, we as the body of Christ are called to stand in the gap to build a better future for all (Ezekiel 22:30).

At SftC, we have been aware of this disparity for quite some time. In fact, we have worked hard to curate a comprehensive collection of resources addressing the need to advance the idea of STEM as a Christian vocation. I know that most of our work is directed to a demographic group that is connected to privilege (to borrow Drew’s nomenclature), but I think this is a good thing. Why? Because both you and I are in the position to use our influence to level the playing field so everyone can access a STEM education.

The biblical writer challenges us to live in a way that God’s love increases and is shared with those who need it the most (1 Thessalonians 3:12). As I think about the far-reaching implications of these remarkable advancements, I could not help but think how the advent of new technologies will impact vulnerable and at-risk communities. Think about how AI-dependent grocery stores will affect the service industry by eliminating cashiers and other supporting personnel. Or how customer service is becoming increasingly dependent on AI technology. I don’t even want to think about how AI will transform healthcare and how these advancements will alienate those on the margins.

If your church needs help thinking through or developing a program on science as a Christian vocation or if you want to explore how “privileged” Christian STEM professionals can help underserved communities, please reach out to us. We can help you design, implement, and lead programs tailored to your contextual needs. Also, we offer consultation services and technical advice for your church. We want to stand in the gap with you and help you transform your community.

In Nobis Regnat Iesus,

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