Au­to­mated ve­hi­cles could threaten jobs of pro­fes­sional drivers

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - MARKETPLACE - By Paul Wise­man and Joe Man­dak

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.

“These things do not hap­pen with­out po­lit­i­cal con­se­quences,” Vardi says.

Uber, which has been test­ing driver­less taxis in Pitts­burgh, dis­putes the no­tion that au­to­mated cars will cost the econ­omy jobs.

“Tech­nol­ogy also cre­ates new work op­por­tu­ni­ties while dis­rupt­ing ex­ist­ing ones,” Travis Kalan­ick, Uber’s CEO, and An­thony Le­vandowski, its vice pres­i­dent for self-driving tech­nol­ogy, said in a state­ment.

For ex­am­ple: “Self-driving Ubers will be on the road 24 hours a day, which means they will need a lot more hu­man main­te­nance.”

A 25-year vet­eran cab­bie who goes by A. Tucker was sit­ting in his Peo­ples Cab out­side the Wyn­d­ham Grand Ho­tel in Pitts­burgh. He worked in a Jones & Laugh­lin steel mill for six years be­fore he was laid off and started driving a cab. He said he fears that driver­less cars will even­tu­ally com­pete with guys like him.

“If you flip the coin to the other side, it was like the steel in­dus­try,” Tucker said. “We thought we would never lose our jobs to au­to­ma­tion. But we lost our jobs, and many of us are driving cabs now.”

Cab drivers have been forced to be­come more pro­fes­sional, tech-savvy and ed­u­cated to com­pete, be­cause they now use tablet com­put­ers, credit card pro­ces­sors and GPS, Tucker said.

“Change is in­evitable, whether we like it or not,” he said. “That’s life on the Earth mov­ing for­ward.”

Some drivers are re­spond­ing to the threat with grim hu­mor. Upon hear­ing that a driver­less truck had crossed Colorado with a load of beer last week, one com­men­ta­tor on the on­line Truck­ers Fo­rum posted a ref­er­ence to the killer com­puter net­work in the Ter­mi­na­tor movies:

“Skynet is ac­tive.”

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A self-driving Uber drives in Pitts­burgh dur­ing a me­dia pre­view Sept. 12. Af­ter tak­ing mil­lions of fac­tory jobs, ro­bots could be com­ing for a new class of worker: peo­ple who drive for a liv­ing.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Em­ploy­ees stand next to self-driving, big-rig trucks dur­ing a demon­stra­tion Aug. 18 at the Otto head­quar­ters in San Fran­cisco. Uber’s self-driving startup Otto de­vel­oped tech­nol­ogy al­low­ing big rigs to drive them­selves.

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