Thursday, August 6, 2015

How Will Self-Driving Cars Change Our World (The Conundrum of Automation)

What happens to the millions of people who make a living driving vehicles, when vehicles become self-driving?

Driving across America, it strikes you how many people are employed in the business of driving vehicles.  Truck drivers must number in the millions, as there are trucks going everywhere - from long-haul freight to local delivery.  Taxi drivers, delivery drivers, and so forth - a lot of people make a living behind the wheel.

And these kinds of jobs were always the last refuge for folks who had no other skills or choices.  Recent immigrants to the US tend to gravitate toward the taxi business for some reason - even though they have no language skills and don't know their way around the city they have been transplanted to.   Driving a truck is a job that you can always get, if you have a clean license.  Even a ex-con can get a job driving, in some cases.

And beyond cars and trucks, there are vehicles like fork lifts (many of which are already automated), bulldozers, rollers, graders, and other construction equipment.  We fly drones remotely already.  Why would we need pilots?   The routine operation of machinery is becoming more and more automated.

What happens if self-driving cars become a reality - which they appear ready to do?  How many millions of people will be thrown out of work?

It is a scary thought.   Add to that all the service jobs related to drivers - truckstop workers, roadside restaurants, even the strip clubs.  And what about the cops who hand out speeding tickets?   Not a lot to do when robotic cars all drive the same, regulated speed.

It is a problem we have faced, with technology, for over a century.   A new technology comes along and suddenly, it takes half the number of people -  or 1/10th - to do the same job as before.   Sure, new jobs come along - usually repairing the machines that replaced the old jobs.  But the number of high-skill repair jobs often is a fraction of the low-skill jobs they replaced.

The trucking industry is already seeing this, with the advent of Intermodal transportation.   In the old days, boxes of goods came to the US by ship (or left!) and were manhandled and pilfered by stevedores with grappling hooks.  These were loaded into box cars or trucks and shipped - being loaded and handled at each step of the process.

Today, containers are loaded at a factory and then sent by rail, truck, or ship, without ever being opened and unloaded.  One crane can move an entire container from ship to rail to truck, in a matter of seconds - replacing at least a dozen men who would have taken far longer to do the same task.

Moreover, the use of containers and piggyback rail has meant that the old job of "long haul" trucking is going by the wayside.   Why pay someone to drive from California to Florida with a load (and pay for all that diesel fuel) when you can put the container on a BNSF train and have it there is about the same amount of time for 1/10th the cost?

It is progress, to be sure, but it means that a lot of menial jobs are eliminated.

And this should be a good thing, one would think.   If all the menial labor in the world was automated, we would all have so much free time to do more esoteric things, while robots did all our work.  And with all this automation, well, we'd all be rich - as the cost of products went further and further down.

And perhaps, in part, this is coming true today.  But it also means there are a lot of people out there with no job skills or obsolete job skills with nothing to do with their time, other than to vie for the few remaining service-sector jobs out there.

Remember when I reported on the Kiosks at McDonald's that I saw being use in France?  Well, it appears they are finally making their way over here - in time to meet the $15 minimum wage.   Raise wages and costs far enough, and the impetus for automation becomes even stronger.  Catch-22.

Of course McDonald's is saying the kiosks are being used to "increase consumer choice" and allow for better service - not merely to cut costs.  Of course.   But you won't pay $10 for a Big Mac.  Fast food is already overpriced as it is.

Automation arguably is one reason our society is increasingly being divided into the haves and have-nots.  If you can design or repair the automated equipment, you have a job.  If you run the company or provide the financing to create this new technology, you can become embarrassingly rich.   If you have no job skills, on the other hand, you will be sentenced to a life of penury.

There are alternatives, of course.  We could create make-work jobs like the Japanese "elevator ladies" who push buttons for you, on an otherwise fully automated elevator.  Perhaps truck drivers will still ride along in their rigs, playing video games and watching porn, while the google robot does the steering.   The problem with that model is that it eliminates any benefit from automation, other than increased safety.

Another idea would be to simply have fewer people around since we need fewer jobs.   But of course, this is not a feasible solution, as 99% of the world believes that creating as many babies as possible is God's will, and on a personal level, want to squirt out as many as possible.   And of course, the further down the food-chain you go, the more children they are likely to have.   

In other words, we are destined to have a whole lot more have-nots in the near future, as more and more jobs are eliminated, and a whole lot more stupid people are brought into the world.  It is the March of the Morons, as predicted.

It is an interesting conundrum.    And one that I am not too worried about as by the time this technology becomes reality, I will be well-poised to shuffle off the mortal coil.   But the next generation will have to grapple with these issues, and decide whether automation will create a utopia that we could only dream about today, or a dystopian nightmare of staggering proportions.