Since the advent of the concept of autonomous vehicles, there has always been an undercurrent of concern about the social impact if they became a reality. A few years ago Uber bought Otto, a startup that specialised in autonomous trucks. Unfortunately that all unwound when it was found that the creator of Otto had “borrowed” some data from his previous employer, Waymo, who sued and settled out of court.
Motoring Weekly has written several articles over the past few years about the possible side effects of autonomous vehicles – many reports on other web sites or papers have been written about the excitement of getting into a vehicle and having it take the passengers to a destination. When this happens, two things are likely to occur. The first is that for some people, it will extend their working days. We saw this with mobile technology and trains: people with longer commutes simply worked a couple of extra hours a day. This will happen when people get into a car and start answering emails or writing reports because they will not need to concentrate on driving.
The other issue that will happen – and it is one that SoftBank want for Uber and ride sharing, is that the human will get taken out of the equation. The driver is the most expensive part of the function, so to get rid of them means lower costs and possibly higher profits. In the US, there is a real concern about the trucking industry that is worth $740Bn a year. The core focus is the long distance, freeway running trucks where the routes are simple and could be managed by autonomous technology. There are nearly 300,000 long-haul truck drivers in the US that could be affected. As described above, this would get rid of a high cost in the logistics industry. Reports suggest that some of these jobs would become short-distance drivers, however, they already exist today, so we could see a big economic issue escalating when the technology gets to the point of being used legally.
The important factor here is that short-haul drivers earn far less than long-haul ones and may have to work longer hours to regain the difference if they have to switch down. Humans are needed to deliver the product locally, although Amazon and others think they can get away with non-human deliveries, however security and theft would be a big issue if a vehicle simply dumped the goods on the sidewalk!
Long-haul drivers will have a problem because ride sharing and taxi services are absolutely in the line of automation, which would stop them getting one of these jobs. There is talk that the drivers could end up as “butlers” for machines by filling the trucks, coupling the trailers and refuelling them. I suspect that would be a stop gap for many until they could figure out a better job.
Several reports suggest that Government policy has to be written to protect the truck drivers. I think that is one option, however Government interference usually causes other issues and is often biased towards the lobbyist or party donor! What is a good idea is that communities start to influence and lobby on behalf of the truck drivers to ensure that local politicians are worried about their own jobs!
Perhaps the solution for long distance haulage is right under our noses: heavy goods trains. For years we have seen the volume of goods reduce on trains and get switched to road. Maybe it is time to switch back. The switch would lose some jobs, however that could be managed through retirements and voluntary redundancies for a start, with more local deliveries with smaller less polluting vans. The trucking companies could become rental customers for the rail businesses using standard sized containers to transport the goods. A byproduct of this would also be that roads would not need as much repair if the average weight of the vehicles was dramatically reduced. Bridges would last longer and the infrastructure costs would decline over time.
This is a difficult topic that is going to get more airtime over the next couple of years as the technology evolves and the human costs become apparent.