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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Driverless Economy

We all know driverless vehicles are coming, but many of us (I think) are having a hard time wrapping our heads around exactly how that's going to work. Google and others have created the impression that human drivers will simply go away, or become passive back-seat passengers. That's not exactly right. It's close, but it misses the essence of what's happening.

What's going to happen, with "driverless" buses, cabs, trucks, delivery vans, and private vehicles, is that the driver's role will change. The driver will still be there, to take over in sticky situations (of which there will obviously be many). Insurance companies are likely to require the presence of a human "safety backup" in most scenarios, at least initially, particularly for things like interstate truck convoys. The human driver will not actually touch the controls 99% of the time. He or she will simply monitor all systems, and be ready to intervene in case of an emergency. Which is kind of what pilots do now, in commercial airliners. Professional pilots rarely touch the controls except for takeoff and landing (and emergencies). Autopilots do the rest. 

So even when big rigs (see video above) become "driverless," there will still be around 3.5 million professional truck drivers on U.S. roads, but instead of being paid an average of $40,000 a year to drive a truck, they'll be paid $25,000 a year (or whatever the going rate happens to be) to monitor a truck's systems. The same will happen to bus drivers. And many others. Professional drivers will morph into systems engineers, a fancy name for (low-paid) "human backup."

This is job crapification on a massive scale: millions of professional drivers, relegated to babysitter duty. And it's set to get underway, in earnest, in as little as five years.
Inside the driverless big rig. Welcome to your new job: babysitter duty.
Some experts are already predicting massive unemployment in the truck-driving industry, but (again) this is not entirely accurate, in my opinion. It isn't so much that jobs are going to go away entirely (although some will). It's more likely that jobs will become de-skilled, such that smaller numbers of less-skilled workers will take the place of high numbers of highly skilled workers. The result will be lower average hourly pay. That's what this is all about. What did you think it was about?

Technology is not just eliminating jobs (by disintermediation, or by outright swapping of machines for humans, etc.) but changing the role of humans in the workforce. Our new role is increasingly one of providing support for the machines that can do the actual work better than we can. We'll work for the machines that are putting us out of work.

If you enjoyed this post, be sure to see also: Half of All Jobs May Go Away Soon.


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