Tech The Potential Social And Economic Disasters Awaiting Us In The Wake Of Driverless Cars

Published on September 26th, 2012 | by Steven Hodson


The Potential Social And Economic Disasters Awaiting Us In The Wake Of Driverless Cars

The Potential Social And Economic Disasters Awaiting Us In The Wake Of Driverless Cars

Recently I wrote a couple of posts here regarding 3D printing and the effects it will have on manufacturing in the U.S. as well as how manufacturing as we knew it will never be coming back; but as with all things to do with technology this isn’t the only area that is going to see massive sea changes that we can’t even begin to comprehend at this point in time.

One of those sea changes is beginning to ripple as we heard in the past couple of days that California has approved a bill that will allow for driverless on state highways; but as Jason Torchinsky at Jalopnik points out we won’t really see any mass adoption of true autonomous vehicles until at least 2025. However as we have seen in the past, and are seeing now with 3D printing, sometimes those estimates can turn out to be as fluid as the sea of change that they are creating.

The Rock Has Been Thrown

I remember as a kid that when ‘futurists’ talked about cars that could drive themselves they were often imaged as fancy vehicles with glass tops that used some sort of track in order to move along the road; and for the longest time that has been the concept of autonomous vehicles. Google changed that though when they started their driverless automobiles program that saw cars being driven by computers using cameras, LIDAR, and artificial intelligence which did away with any thought of needing a track or similar ideas.

Google’s driverless project first became public back in late 2009, early 2010, and then in May 2012 Nevada became the first state to make driverless cars legal; which means in less that three years the project has gone from being just a couple of cars being outfitted with the technology to becoming legal in one state. Now we have California lining up on the side of driverless technology, although a little more restrictive than Nevada, so in other words – the rock has been thrown in the ocean and the ripples are starting to head out in all directions.

There’s No Speed Limits On Technology

As we are seeing with 3D printing technology once that genie has been let out of the technology lamp there is no getting it back in and its speed of adoption already seems to be following its own version of Moore’s Law as it seems that it was only yesterday that the first crude version of the printer hardware was being made public by Maker Labs. Now we have them opening up a store in Manhattan where you can buy your very own 3D printer for your desktop along with all kinds of accessories.

Now we look to driverless cars and we have to wonder if it will find its technology also following the same pattern, after all it has only been a short four years since Google first began its project and already we have two states signing bills to allow driverless vehicles on their roads. Already we have all the major car manufacturers incorporating some sort of driver-assist technology within their vehicles and they are all taking a serious interest in autonomous vehicle technology as being heralded by Google’s initiative, and being followed up by a growing number of startups.

It is inevitable that in the near future that autonomous vehicles will start making inroads into our daily lives. We have opened that door and it just a matter of time before we’ll walk all the way through it into yet a different world, the question is though, are ready for the massive impact that this new driverless world we will definitely find ourselves in.

Hailing That Taxi

As I tried to show in my post about 3D printing and manufacturing, and in the robots in manufacturing post, one of the unspoken effects of these technologies is the massive effect they are both going to have on jobs. Each of these technologies are going to create some pretty wonderful things for our society but the cost of those technologies is going to be jobs; jobs that will never come back.

Even though such an impact on jobs from these technologies might still be 10 to 15 years out the fact is that the resulting job losses will be affecting a society that is already taken the worst jobs battering it has ever experienced. Now you are also going to see the growing; and rapidly maturing, technology behind autonomous vehicles which, even though it’s implementation time frame might be further out that the previous two, it also is inevitable just as its impact on jobs will be.

How long do you think it will be after we get real autonomous vehicles, that don’t require a “driver” to be present, that companies that utilize large fleets of vehicles, which currently have human drivers, will jump on the driverless vehicle bandwagon, and in a big way.

A very real example of this would be the taxi industry and the thousands of people who earn their living driving a cab. For a cab company the money savings are very realistic, even the ones that lease out their vehicles to drivers because now rather than only taking a percentage, or fee, from the driver they can deploy those vehicles and make all the money. Then there is insurance which is another business that will be greatly affected by this technology, to the point that it is something that many insurance companies are already trying to figure out how they are going to deal with it.

In Los Angeles there are according to The City of Los Angeles Transportation Profile (pdf) 2,300 taxicabs which if like any other taxi operation will have two licensed drivers available per car which come out to 4,600 jobs (at today’s stats which means that it will only climb as we go forward) that will be affected by autonomous vehicles. Then there’s a city like New York which, according to PBS Facts and Figures,  currently has 40,000 licensed taxi drivers, and like Los Angeles that number is only going to grow but again like every other city with taxi cabs they also will be affected by this technology.

Keep On Truckin’

Like all technology though autonomous vehicle technology won’t affect just one single job market, or just one type of business.

In 2006 the U.S. trucking industry employed 3.4 million drivers, and while I am sure that with some types of trucking – short haul and delivery – there will still be some sense of job security for a longer time period; but as autonomous vehicles gain in popularity and the safety of their use becomes even better that there will come a point where we could see driverless long haul semi-trucks moving between cities.

There will be all kinds of factors that will drive companies down this road: insurance, competition, maintenance, and of course employee costs. Sure this might not happen for maybe even 20 – 25 years, or depending on how quickly the technology matures and how accepted it becomes it could happen sooner.

So even taking, what is probably already greatly outdated number of truck drivers and suggest that only half of them are long haul truckers that would mean at least 1.5 million plus jobs gone, and not to come back.

The Double Edged Sword

Technology promises us great things. It could provide us with ways to change our society in ways that it has never been changed before and make it better; but as with all things there are costs that will be incurred.

Just as we will see with 3D printing and the increased use of robots in all levels of manufacturing the biggest cost we will incur with something like autonomous vehicles is the loss of jobs. What makes this even more of a cost is that these are jobs that generally employ the largest number of people who for whatever reason couldn’t, or didn’t want to, find more upskill jobs.

So while we may be doing what we can to use technology to make a better and safer society we are also sowing the seeds for a whole segment of that society to find themselves jobless because while we rush headlong into these technologies we aren’t doing anything to prepare for their after effects.

In typical human fashion those in positions to mitigate any future social and economic problems because of these technologies would rather continue to con people into believing that it will all works itself out in the long run. The problem is that we are running out of the long run on too many fronts. The future is coming; coming faster that policy makers are willing to admit, and we aren’t even close to being ready for it.

You see technology doesn’t care about who it affects, that is our job, whereas its job is to keep on advancing. It’s just too bad that we seem more willing to let it roll over us instead of preparing ourselves for the road it is laying out, a road with no speed limits.



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About the Author

Steven has been around the tech world long enough to see most of the stuff we think of cool happen before which leads to a certain bit of cynicism that has contributed to him being known as the cranky old fart of the Internet. Besides sharing some of the goodness that he finds with you here at 42x you can also find him curating some digital goodness at Winextra (tech type stuff) and Rotten Gumdrops (for your daily dose of WTF).

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