Autonomous Vehicles May Never Become “Self-Aware”, But That Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Coming for Your Job

By: Mason Hudon

“Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 AM, Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.” – Terminator 2: Judgment Day

The Insidious Issue: Worker Displacement

True driverless cars will inevitably begin to find their way onto American roadways within the next decade, and the touted benefits are palpable. From saving time to reducing traffic fatalities, companies developing these technologies, including Tesla, Waymo, Ford, and Nissan, have rested their arguments for the development of driverless cars on reveries of a futuristic tomorrow in which one can press a button and be whisked off to their destination without a second thought. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?

It’s important to note that personal autonomous vehicles are likely not the first experience that the average American will have with this technology. Companies like Peloton Technology (no, not the exercise bike) and Locomation are making sure of that. These corporations are developing and refining a revolutionary process called “platooning” whereby two or more semi-trucks move together in a tight line while being piloted autonomously, with only the truck at the very front of the platoon piloted by a person. Platooning is poised to upend the freight industry and may lead to increased efficiency and decreased costs for major players in the space. According to Caleb Weaver, Uber’s Director of Public Affairs for the West Coast, the freight industry will undoubtedly be the first to feel a true and deep impact from AV innovation.

With every bit of news about the perils of autonomous vehicle technology causing accidental deaths, allowing source-code to be hacked, or increasing traffic-congestion in the short-to-medium term, comes reassurance from the industry that software will get better, cybersecurity will become more robust, and in the long-run, a driverless vehicle world will benefit society. Most of the time, manufacturers of autonomous vehicles respond to criticism with great aplomb. But, crucially, the autonomous vehicle world struggles to find answers to a serious criticism of the industry as a whole: widespread worker displacement in the transportation industry.

As the AV industry pushes ever forward, it falls to American lawmakers to act on this issue soon. The consequences of waiting much longer might be dire.

Despite a recent dearth of truck drivers in the United States, approximately 3.5 million people continue to drive freight, making it one of the largest industries for employment in the nation. In contrast, Uber, which is America’s most popular rideshare company, is said to contract with upwards of 1 million gig workers per year. Additionally there are about 207,000 taxi drivers in the United States. All told, this non-exhaustive list of drivers in the United States includes about 4.7 million people, many of whom may not have higher education or experience outside of their work as drivers. If these people lose their jobs to autonomous vehicles, lawmakers are going to be faced with a very tricky unemployment problem.

Potential Solutions

It’s doubtful that American lawmakers or industries will act as drastically as Indian Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, who in 2017 vowed to prohibit driverless cars on Indian roads. Still, slowing the expansion of AV technologies may be part of the approach. In 2017, Microsoft magnate Bill Gates proposed a tax on robots that take jobs away from humans, and a similar measure was proposed in the European Union around the same time, although it ultimately failed to pass as law. In practice, a “robot tax” would have the effect of incentivizing companies to retain human workers for longer periods of time, and its proceeds could be used to fund other parts of the transition process, notably job retraining or universal basic income.

Job retraining is a particularly complex issue because it involves many different questions concerning different entities at every level of development and potential rollout. For example, should job retraining programs be funded by government entities or by the private corporations that are causing the worker displacement in the first place? Should these programs be formulated to give displaced workers total freedom of choice in deciding their “new careers” or should the programs be designed to focus on workers who intend to stay in the same industry? The latter question is especially poignant considering that “[w]hile new jobs will result from the new industry, they’re unlikely to be a direct match for the commercial driving ones that are going away. Those engineering and managing the technology, for example, are not the same folks that are driving buses.” In all likelihood, job retraining for potentially millions of displaced workers will require both private and public investment on a largely unprecedented scale, and the legal framework that will facilitate this process will have to be complex and developed in a timely manner to prevent an economic crisis for the displaced.

Universal basic income (UBI), like job retraining, presents unique challenges, but it places significant economic burdens on governmental entities rather than on private corporations, or worse yet, on private individuals. Indeed, UBI could significantly alleviate some of the growing pains associated with widespread worker displacement by autonomous vehicles. Federally, such a program is unlikely to ever come into existence. State governments, however, might be able to adopt a UBI system, provided they can figure out a viable way to fund it.

The No Solution Contingency

If the tech companies developing these technologies are to be believed, a solution (outside of simple job training) might not be necessary. According to Waymo, the elimination of jobs for drivers signals the creation of jobs for technicians, dispatchers, customer service representatives, and fleet response teams that will employ about as many people as are currently employed. These roles, which will likely become available at the majority of companies transitioning to autonomous vehicle fleets, can then be filled by people that are already company employees.

It sure sounds fantastic, but skepticism should remain high. Hoping that this situation will just work itself out (like Waymo suggests it will) is not a safe road for American lawmakers to take, and they should remain wary of the complexity of the issues at hand. Waymo’s approach downplays the costs and pitfalls of widespread job retraining, and it seems that many other autonomous vehicle companies are confident this issue will not be their cross to bear. Before we see actual job loss due to the AV industry, American lawmakers should begin preparing for the inevitable through proactive legislation and direct address of the issues.

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