Hands On The Wheel. Unh-Unh…Driverless Cars Are Coming (Video)

In the last 48 hours alone, major news has broken on several different fronts of the driverless car movement. Earlier this week, Ford announced it would be introducing a fleet of auto-piloted vehicles occupying city streets and available for ride-sharing by 2021. But in Pittsburgh, there is only a month left before self-driving cars become integrated by Uber. Naturally, each of these stories has implications that will likely reverberate for years to come, most noticeably where human labor is concerned.

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TechCrunch recently published an examination of what the introduction of autonomous vehicles could do to America’s ride-sharing economy, particularly the millions of drivers working for companies like Uber. However, as Josh Constine writes, “[t]hey won’t be the only ones affected, though. The consequences of robot-induced unemployment could eventually ripple through the rest of the economy.” As previously reported by Ambrosia for Heads and mentioned by Constine, the prospect of driverless vehicles is also changing the face of the trucking industry, not to mention the employment of the “countless millions of delivery, bus, taxi, and other drivers around the world.” He urges an approach of preparedness despite the likelihood that it will take two decades or more for there to be a major shift in those pockets of the labor force. “But if we don’t plan for this labor shift, it could cause mass hardship for some even while delivering mass convenience to others,” he argues.

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After listing the benefits of driverless vehicles (which include lower carbon emissions, less traffic, and higher levels of safety on the road), Constine focuses his efforts on what the implications of the technology are for low-skilled labor workers, who also include workers like cashiers and food prep-professionals. He points to a philosophical fallacy, which is that while some would argue the introduction of driverless technology will in fact create jobs, those positions likely “won’t be attainable by those losing their low-skilled ones.” As such, a massive swath of American workers are facing economic extinction, much like horses did when cars were invented. Constine’s point is supported in a video package called “Humans Need Not Apply.”

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In it, human civilization’s development of convenience tools is traced throughout history, from the development of agriculture (which eliminated our need to hunt and gather our food) to bulldozers and computers. But as the video points out, there is something remarkably different about the modern era’s economic revolution, and its name is automation. Robots like those tasked with building cars on a factory line are “the old kind of automation” because they are only cost effective in accomplishing very specific tasks. Those kinds of automated machines still require highly skilled technicians, whereas the burgeoning automation technology of today has the capability of learning. General-purpose robots (think a household robot like Rosie from “The Jetsons” or a computer) are changing the rules of automation, allowing for machines to take on tasks that are not predetermined, but rather based on cognitive decision-making.

Baristas, grocery-store cashiers, and others have long since seen their numbers decimated thanks to automated technology, and the very same trend is now threatening to affect the driving economy. At the 3:39 mark of the video, the horse-to-car transition is introduced and a hypothetical situation in which two horses discuss amongst each other the impending doom awaiting their futures is used to highlight what many see to be an equally ludicrous prospect: the driver-to-robot revolution. “Better technology makes for better jobs for horses” sounds silly, but replace “horses” with “humans” and that phrase doesn’t sound so crazy. “As mechanical muscles push horses out of the economy, mechanical minds will do the same to humans,” it’s argued. It may not happen right away, but the video warns “it’s going to be a huge problem if we’re not prepared.”

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At 5:02, self-driving cars are introduced, and the pros and cons of their rapid absorption into society is examined. According to the video, American drivers kill 40,000 people a year, a number that would likely decrease exponentially given that driverless cars “don’t blink, don’t text while driving, don’t get sleepy or stupid.” Because of those facts,” it’s easy to see them being better than humans because they already are,” but it isn’t all good news.

For exceptionally detailed research on how technology like automation is directly affecting employment, you can visit the University of Oxford’s collection of publications on the topic.