In a driverless future, what happens to today's drivers?

January 13, 2016 by Leon Vanstone, University Of Texas At Austin, The Conversation
Are today’s drivers yesterday’s horses? Credit: Winton Motor Carriage Company

Self-driving cars are becoming a very real technology. The latest Tesla car has an autopilot feature. The CEO of Uber has stated that he will buy every self-driving car Tesla can produce for a year (about 500,000). The Google self-driving car occasionally overtakes me as I cycle to work in Austin. Other manufacturers are also developing their own self-driving systems. There's even talk of driverless car racing.

So let us imagine a not too distant (and quite likely) future where the majority of vehicles on the roads drive themselves. Those cars are networked together – they communicate information about their position, speed, traffic and hazards around them. You don't need to stop at junctions if you know there's no traffic approaching. A large traffic management system keeps cars moving, finding the best route.

An entire system of transportation that manages itself, reduces traffic, accidents, emissions – and all for a lower cost. How long before not only accept this but even prefer it? Though many are quick to claim no one will want it, how many people still ride a horse-drawn carriage?

The implications of driverless cars are huge because the transportation industry is huge, employing almost five million people in the U.S. alone. Suddenly you don't need drivers for taxis, buses, garbage trucks, deliveries, you name it. Not just cars either – boats, planes, anything that moves could be completely automated. Once this process begins, it's likely to happen quickly, because there's an incredible amount of money to be saved this way. What happened to the horses when we didn't need them to pull carts?

How else are you going to get it there? Credit: JLS Photography - Alaska, CC BY-NC-ND

Drivers are vital to our transport system today

The people who today drive these vehicles are currently some of the most valuable to . Modern life would grind to a halt if they all suddenly disappeared. Together, these millions of people move food to our supermarkets, take garbage from our houses and take our children to school. What happens to all those people, who through no fault of their own, find themselves unemployed with a skill set society no longer wants or needs?

Obviously, jobs have disappeared from society before: how many people are blacksmiths, cobblers or chimney sweeps? Entire professions have faded from society before with little effect, so why care now?

Something changed.

Imagine you were alive hundreds of thousands of years ago. The average life expectancy is low. Technology is primitive. Food is scarce. Wi-Fi signal is beyond terrible. You spend most of your time foraging for food, and what little spare time you have during daylight hours is spent essentially doing science. Now this isn't very advanced science – I'm talking about bashing rocks together, discovering fire, making spears – but none the less these explorations are science and progress is slow.

These workers don’t complain. Credit: spencer cooper, CC BY-ND

Now imagine you went back just a thousand years. You are now a peasant, along with almost everyone else. The average life expectancy is still low. You spend most of your time growing enough food so a few very privileged people don't have to farm at all. As a whole, society has a little more free time to invent and discover. Progress is faster but not that fast. Life for the peasants still stinks. Wi-Fi signal is still terrible.

Now you are you. Your is higher than ever before. You are either part of the 1.5 percent of American society that does all the farming for everyone else or you're part of the 98.5 percent that does other things. Either way your life probably doesn't stink, Wi-Fi coverage is phenomenally better and you essentially live like royalty (at least in comparison to the other two versions of you). So what changed?


When the transition happens too fast

Farmers were replaced by machinery and they became manufacturers. Manufacturers were replaced by automated assembly lines and they went on to become computer engineers. The more people in a society who can be free to think, create and do things that don't involve sustaining that society (like farming or moving things), the more people you have available to be artists, scientists and entrepreneurs. This leads to more discoveries, which in turn, frees more people to think and so on. Humanity has been doing this for millennia.

A factory left to rust. Its workers are gone. Credit: Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC

But this process of replacing one occupation with another has always been slow. Society needs time to adjust to a change in required skill sets. In truth, few farmers really retrain as manufacturers and few manufacturers go on to become computer engineers. It is much more likely to be the next generation that trains into the new skill set modern society requires. The farmers' children go on to be manufacturers and the manufacturers' children become computer scientists. But at some point, the rate of change may happen quicker than children take to grow up. At some point, the manufacturer has to retrain as a computer engineer… or confront a life with no livelihood.

In fact we have already passed that point; it occurred around the end of World War II, when the industry moved to automated manufacturing. A prime example of this is Detroit, a city that grew from a population of 300,000 in 1900 to almost two million in 1950 due to automotive manufacturing. But soon after that 1950 peak, through a mix of poor management, global competition and automation, the manufacturing jobs disappeared, and the people did not. Detroit suffered. In 2012, Detroit was murder capital of the U.S., and in 2013 it filed for bankruptcy. This problem was not unique to one city: large parts of once-prosperous countries are now poor simply because the industry there collapsed relatively quickly.

From a social view point, having millions more people free to do more complex tasks is good. It leaves more people to be artists and scientists and entrepreneurs in much the same way reducing the number of farmers and manufacturers did.

For the millions of individuals who have suddenly lost their jobs, this evolution is very bad. As a society, we are not good at helping them to retrain. Instead we leave them to rust. Should we as a society pay to retrain workers whose jobs become obsolete, or do we just get used to living in Detroit?

These questions are important, and we need to be talking about them now. We stand on a technological precipice, a tipping point, a time in human history that rivals the discovery of farming and the Industrial Revolution.

Recently a computer program passed the entrance exam to a university. Robots can cook and work in retail. Robots can learn, and we're learning to make them learn faster. There are even computer programs that can rewrite themselves to be more efficient.

We need to decide now what we will do about those drivers displaced in the name of progress because what we do now will set a precedent. A precedent for what society does with the rest of us when technology comes for our jobs. How long before we have to retrain the computer scientists? What will their children want to be?

Explore further: A look at California's plan to make self-driving cars public

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Smartphones are revolutionizing medicine

February 18, 2017

Smartphones are revolutionizing the diagnosis and treatment of illnesses, thanks to add-ons and apps that make their ubiquitous small screens into medical devices, researchers say.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jan 13, 2016
Great article. We need a whole new political dialogue here in the U.S. The politicians in Oklahoma are besides themselves - as the state budget is totally dependent on oil revenue - and of course no one could have predicted that oil revenue would not continue for ever (sarcasm). We have been through this many times before - they just don't seem to understand the world that they want to be in charge of. If oil prices go up - the end of the world! If oil prices go down - the end of the world! If they are so clueless that they cannot see a repeating pattern like oil busts and booms - how can they be prepared for what this article is talking about? Just look at how prepared Americans are for retirement - http://www.retire...ent.html And we are ready for this Tsunami?
not rated yet Jan 13, 2016
Farmers were replaced by machinery and they became manufacturers. Manufacturers were replaced by automated assembly lines and they went on to become computer engineers.

Not really.

80% of the population in the US today are working in "services", which largely means making up some way to get other people to consume something in order to get paid yourself. They didn't become engineers and scientists, but hairdressers and web-designers - because that's easier.

And that's the whole problem. People no longer have anything productive to do, so they do the unproductive.

It's more expensive to use a robot when there's a person to do the job, because you have to pay for both the robot and the person. It only "works" while the guy who owns the robot doesn't have to pay the person - i.e. when profits are privatized while costs are socialized.

not rated yet Jan 13, 2016
The argument for total automatization was valid early in the 20th century when there was much to do and much too few people to do it.

Now we have much less to do, and much more people to do it. Automating more and more things simply means we'll segregate more into the people who have everything because the things they own make and do everything, and those who are left fighting for the scraps.

And the answer isn't simply to institute socialism and level the playing field by force, because the people still lack a purpose even when you give them all they need. What people do in that situation is simply more people, and then you're back where you started with more people and everybody poor and starving again.

not rated yet Jan 13, 2016
The whole point of an economy is that other people can do the things you can't do yourself - so you trade. When robots do and make everything for you, you don't need the other people. You just need the robots.

Even today, when the 80% of people only make each other consume for a living, what would you expect to get back from them in trade as a producer or owner yourself? Trivial amusements and distractions, political power: menial servitude, mostly.

That is the real reason why 20% of the US has 80% of the wealth. There's simply no reason for the elite to trade their wealth away because the other people have nothing to offer in return.
not rated yet Jan 13, 2016

There's simply no reason for the elite to trade their wealth away because the other people have nothing to offer in return.

Bingo. They have been drinking from MR166's cup of 'free market capitalism is the only option' We need a major revision of the social/political dialogue - and need to consider some better ways of thinking - beyond the exploitive model of horde everything for myself - and F**k everyone else. I know - that makes me a socialist (which I am not) - but based on this article - and the last 4 comments - is the current system working? Would it be good to start talking about better ways of organizing? Watch the movie "Inside Job". I wish everyone would watch that dvd - and see how far the U.S. fallen.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.