Automated cars could threaten jobs of professional drivers
NEW YORK: Ronald De Feo has watched robots take factory jobs for years. Now he sees them threatening a new class of worker: People who drive for a living.
“I am in Pittsburgh; it’s a test market for Uber’s autonomous vehicle,” says De Feo, CEO of the industrial materials firm Kennametal. “We see all these (automated) Ubers running around the streets of Pittsburgh, a confusing and difficult place to navigate. If they can make that work, what do you think happens to the job of being a taxi driver?”
Computer scientists and economists say the threat isn’t merely theoretical: Automated cars pose an existential threat to the many Americans who drive for a living: 2.9 million truckers and delivery drivers, 674,000 bus drivers, 181,000 cab drivers and chauffeurs. The big question is how long it will take auto and tech companies to clear the technical hurdles to turning the streets over to driverless cars.
“I don’t see herds of robotic trucks running down the highway in the next few years,” says Vern Meyerotto, a 61-year-old truck driver in Denver. “There’s an awful lot of development that needs to be done on it.” Meyerotto, who’s been driving since 2007, points to the self-driving Tesla Model S car that crashed in May, killing the driver, after the car’s cameras failed to detect a tractor-trailer crossing its path. He doesn’t expect to see robotic trucks doing much driving for 10 or 15 more years.
But the quick development of driverless cars has caught economists by surprise. Assessing which jobs were vulnerable to robots in a 2004 book, economists Frank Levy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Richard Murnane of Harvard University reckoned that truck drivers were safe. Surely, a machine couldn’t negotiate rush-hour traffic without a helping human hand.
Six years later, Google’s automated cars were on the road, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, circling Lake Tahoe and cruising down Hollywood Boulevard. Now, companies from Ford to Tesla to Uber are investing in automated car technology. “The next big wave of automation will apply to driving,” says Moshe Vardi, a computer scientist at Rice University.
Vardi suspects that truck drivers will be the first victims. Automated trucks can be programmed to go from one warehouse to another, plying express lanes reserved for trucks that let them avoid interacting with human drivers.
Vardi notes that vulnerable truckers have much in common with the factory workers who’ve been ousted by machines over the past several decades: They tend to be white men, middle-aged or older, with high school-only educations - the people who’ve formed the core support for Donald Trump.
SAN FRANCISCO: In this Aug 18, 2016, file photo, Matt Grigsby, senior program engineer at Otto, takes his hands off the steering wheel of a self-driving, big-rig truck during a demonstration on the highway, in San Francisco. Uber’s self-driving startup Otto developed technology allowing big rigs to drive themselves.