The Headless Uber and Your Job

By: Ian King

This month marked the debut of Uber’s self-driving vehicles onto the streets of Pittsburg, PA. Uber’s limited release of driverless vehicles is just the first step in their plan of replacing the roughly 1.5 million drivers with autonomous vehicles. [1] While Uber is the first to launch public access to driverless vehicles they are not alone in the race to produce commercially available autonomous vehicles. Companies such as, Google’s Alphabet, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Ford, GM, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Tesla, Toyota, Volkswagen, and Volvo have all begun conducting trials to release driverless vehicles to the public.[2] Analysts predict the launch of these vehicles beginning as early as 2020, and full-scale availability by the year 2040.[3]

In response to Uber’s recent release of autonomous vehicles, the United States Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx met with reporters to outline the federal guidelines — known as the Vehicle Performance Guidance for Automated Vehicles.[4] The guidelines set out a 15-point safety assessment for commercial manufacturers and tech developers to address before moving forward. Concerning the assessment guidelines Foxx stated, “we have to have a level of confidence that those issues, each one of the 15, have been independently reviewed, evaluated and confirmed…It’s really creating a more open-ended type of approach.”[5] Thus, with the competition to release autonomous vehicles and government support the question is not whether autonomous vehicles will take to the roads, it is a matter of when.

So, what does this shift mean for the millions of Americans that are set to be replaced? Aside from the 1.5 million Uber drivers facing unemployment, commercial trucking is still the largest job in 29 states across the United States.[6] According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are approximately 3.5 million truck drivers, bringing the total number of individuals directly affected by this change to roughly 5 million.[7] Moreover, looking beyond the road ways to the other industries reliant on trucking such as, this number increases to the tens of millions.

To analyze this employment issue it is helpful to consider the predicted benefits versus the costs of implementing autonomous vehicles.  Next, I will use the trucking industry to illustrate what this shift may mean for the millions of Americans with their jobs at risk. Finally, I will consider possible solutions to the looming rise in unemployment.

Benefits v. Costs

The predicted benefits of self-driving vehicles include reduction in traffic and parking, decreases in emissions and pollution, enabling disabled as well as other non-drivers a mode of transport, reducing roadway costs, and making roadways safer.[8] While many of these benefits are purely speculative, advocates for driverless cars are using driver safety as their major selling point. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, over 40% of all vehicular accidents can be attributed to some form of human error.[9] The shift to driverless vehicles could drastically improve these figures and perhaps reduce the number of human lives lost on U.S. roadways every year. With the prospect of reducing the loss of human life, it is easy to see why the government would be so quick to jump on the autonomous vehicle band wagon. However, these benefits may not be as substantial as advocates predict and do not come without costs.

Among the potential costs are, increased costs for consumers looking to maintain vehicles integrating this technology, security and privacy concerns, social equality issues with affordability and accessibility, uncertainty with insurance coverages and liabilities, and reduced employment.[10] Similar to some of the predicted benefits above, some of the potential costs are without hard and fast data to support them. However, there are solid figures for the number of individuals facing possible unemployment, and it is a major concern for implementation.

Replacing Skilled Labor

The process of replacing workers with machines and later with fully autonomous systems characterizes the pursuit of profits through cutting costs and maximizing benefits.  Unskilled labor has continually been replaced as technology improves and processes become automated. However, skilled labor required for more complex tasks has been a major obstacle for developers looking to further automate the workplace. Operating and navigating a 40-ton machine along roadways is without a doubt a complex task, and has until now been reserved to the domain of skilled human laborers.

The trucking industry in particular raises major concerns because it is still the largest profession in over half of the United States. According to the United States labor institute, truck drivers are among the last high paying careers not requiring a secondary degree.[11] If autonomous trucks were to replace the millions of truck drivers today, then we would face a major employment crisis for both the current and future drivers.

The problem with replacing all of these workers is that many of them have no other means of making a living and supporting their family. Transitioning to other careers or returning to school is not likely to be a viable option for many of these workers. Figures from the department of labor show that there are currently 7,849,000 unemployed in the United States.[12]

Without a means to make a living the millions of unemployed would likely turn to government assistance, which would increase the strain on an already overburdened welfare system. While others may turn to pursue secondary education, they would be entering an oversaturated job market. Applying this same fact pattern to the millions of taxi cab drivers, Uber drivers, and those reliant on trucking and transportation, this problem has the potential of becoming a much larger issue beyond unemployment.

Solutions?

Policy makers and businesses need to effectively plan for this major shift in transportation to avoid causing a chain of events leading to mass unemployment and other unforeseen effects. While autonomous vehicles are some among the newest threats to job security, workers being displaced through automation is not a new phenomenon. Researchers and policy planners studying the topic have proposed several possible solutions to the problem including, improved access to education, promoting entrepreneurs, increasing technical training, and a basic/universal income.[13] However, there remain major obstacles to implementing these solutions. Specifically, unemployment in the trucking industry represents an interstate issue that would not be restricted to a particular region of the United States. Therefore, effective solutions require coordination between states and with the Federal government.

Although all of these solutions include challenges of their own, the problem they would alleviate clearly outweigh the possible costs for planning and implementation. Tens of millions of workers would have the capability of finding purpose and work outside of the careers lost to driverless cars. In addition, implementation would also provide a framework for future workers pushed out by automization.

Technology is continually moving forward and accomplishing tasks once done by workers for cents on the dollar. With stakes this high the policy makers should begin planning for the future of the millions of workers soon to be unemployed. With the recent forecasts by experts and policy makers alike, the question is, how long before the headless Uber becomes the headless trucker?

[1] Heather Sommerville, Uber debuts self-driving vehicles in landmark Pittsburgh trial, Reuters (Sept. 14, 2016), http://www.reuters.com/article/us-uber-autonomous-idUSKCN11K12Y.

[2] Daniel Fagnant & Kara Kockelman, Preparing a Nation for Autonomous Vehicles: Opportunities, Barriers, and Policy Recommendations for Capitalizing on Self-Driven Vehicles, Eno Ctr. For Transp. 2, 1-20 (2013).

[3] Todd Litman, Autonomous Vehicle Implementation Predictions: Implications for Transport Planning, Victoria Transport Pol’y Inst. 36-42 (2014).

[4] Melissa Nann Burke & Michael Wayland, Feds announce unprecedented autonomous car guidelines, Det. News (Sept. 20, 2016), http://www.detroitnews.com/story/business/autos/

2016/09/19/feds-announce-unprecedented-autonomous-vehicle-guidelines/90716884.

[5] Id.

[6] Joel Lee, Self Driving Cars Endanger Millions of American Jobs (And That’s Okay), Future Tech (Jun. 19, 2015), http://www.makeuseof.com/tag/self-driving-cars-endanger-millions-american-jobs-thats-okay.

[7] Olivia Solon, Self-Driving trucks: What’s the future of America’s 3.5 million truckers?, Guardian (Jun. 17, 2016), https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/jun/17/self-driving-trucks-impact-on-drivers-jobs-us.

[8] Litman, supra note 3 at 4.

[9] Fatal Analysis Reporting System, Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (2012).

[10] Litman, supra note 3 at 4.

[11] Lee, supra note 6.

[12] Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Bureau Labor Stat., http://www.bls.gov/cps/tables.htm#empstat (last modified Mar. 24, 2016).

[13] Solon, supra note 7.