While it’s easy to celebrate the potential benefits (greatly reduced accidents, saved time, and possible emissions savings from more efficient vehicles and driving patterns, including reduced ownership), I’m concerned about the impacts to the environment. I described some solutions in a previous blog post that would reduce the risk that the technology just leads to more sprawl and traffic.
But maybe the environmental concerns are not the real story here. Instead, it may be the potential for mass disruption in employment from full adoption of complete automation technologies.
Take truck driving, which is the most common job in most states. As Joel Lee described in makeuseof.com in 2015:
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were approximately 1.6 million American truck drivers in 2014 earning a mean income of $42,000. That’s more than half a percent of the country, and $67 billion dollars in income – about 0.3% of the US GDP.
These new trucks aren’t completely autonomous yet, but the technology is going to get there sooner rather than later. And when that day arrives, those truck drivers will need to find something else to do. When you include delivery truck operators, which numbered around 800,000 in 2014, we end up with 2.4 million people who may be out of a job in the next decade or two.
And then when you factor in delivery trucks, school buses, taxis, and other driving industries, plus auto body repair shops and parking meter attendants that may not be needed anymore, we could be looking at 4 million American jobs lost, or more than 1% of the country.
For his part, Lee argues that the benefits to the economy could more than make up for those lost jobs, such as from reduced auto repair costs and pollution. But he recognizes that direct jobs created are unlikely to make up for the lost jobs.
In many ways, the arguments are similar to free trade: while we may lose some jobs, the overall benefits to the economy outweigh those impacts. Of course, that’s easy to say if it’s not your job that’s lost.
Perhaps more importantly, we just saw the political effects of voters displaced by automation, as Trump capitalized in part on voter frustration with the decrease in manufacturing jobs lost to machines (that he incorrectly blamed solely on trade policies).
Ross Mayfield puts this growing automation trend in context (it will also affect white collar workers who can be replaced by software) and warns that it could lead to a huge backlash if the tech industry doesn’t take action now to head it off:
In 4–8 years there will be a populist politician that will point the finger at the Tech Industry as enemy number one. In a way, Trump already has. This person will yield a backlash against Tech that will stunt progress and make it an instrument of her or his control far worse. This is more than stones hurled at Google Busses. When people start to feel their unhappiness is because of Tech, the post-truth era of Trump and post-ethics of the GOP elite will pale in comparison to the real movements someone could control.
He suggests the industry refocus on technology that leads to job creation, and that the industry re-focus to support worker training program for jobs in the new technology world.
But in the meantime, we may be facing massive economic and environmental disruption on a scale not quite seen before.