In a Driverless Future, What Happens to Today’s Drivers?

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Self-driving cars are becoming a very real technology. The latest Tesla car has an autopilot feature. The CEO of Uber has stated that he will buy every self-driving car Tesla can produce for a year (about 500,000). The Google self-driving car occasionally overtakes me as I cycle to work in Austin. Other manufacturers are also developing their own self-driving systems. There’s even talk of driverless car racing.

So let us imagine a not too distant (and quite likely) future where the majority of vehicles on the roads drive themselves. Those cars are networked together — they communicate information about their position, speed, traffic and hazards around them. You don’t need to stop at junctions if you know there’s no traffic approaching. A large traffic management system keeps cars moving, finding the best route.

An entire system of transportation that manages itself, reduces traffic, accidents, emissions — and all for a lower cost. How long before people not only accept this but even prefer it? Though many are quick to claim no one will want it, how many people still ride a horse-drawn carriage?

The implications of driverless cars are huge because the transportation industry is huge, employing almost five million people in the U.S. alone. Suddenly you don’t need drivers for taxis, buses, garbage trucks, deliveries, you name it. Not just cars either — boats, planes, anything that moves could be completely automated. Once this process begins, it’s likely to happen quickly, because there’s an incredible amount of money to be saved this way. What happened to the horses when we didn’t need them to pull carts?


Are today's drivers yesterday's horses? (Winton Motor Carriage Company/Wikimedia Commons)

Drivers are vital to our transport system today

The people who today drive these vehicles are currently some of the most valuable to society. Modern life would grind to a halt if they all suddenly disappeared. Together, these millions of people move food to our supermarkets, take garbage from our houses and take our children to school. What happens to all those people, who through no fault of their own, find themselves unemployed with a skill set society no longer wants or needs?

Obviously, jobs have disappeared from society before: how many people are blacksmiths, cobblers or chimney sweeps? Entire professions have faded from society before with little effect, so why care now?

Something changed.

Imagine you were alive hundreds of thousands of years ago. The average life expectancy is low. Technology is primitive. Food is scarce. Wi-Fi signal is beyond terrible. You spend most of your time foraging for food, and what little spare time you have during daylight hours is spent essentially doing science. Now this isn’t very advanced science — I’m talking about bashing rocks together, discovering fire, making spears — but nonetheless these explorations are science and progress is slow.

Now imagine you went back just a thousand years. You are now a peasant, along with almost everyone else. The average life expectancy is still low. You spend most of your time growing enough food so a few very privileged people don’t have to farm at all. As a whole, society has a little more free time to invent and discover. Progress is faster but not that fast. Life for the peasants still stinks. Wi-Fi signal is still terrible.

Now you are you. Your average life expectancy is higher than ever before. You are either part of the 1.5 percent of American society that does all the farming for everyone else or you’re part of the 98.5 percent that does other things. Either way your life probably doesn’t stink, Wi-Fi coverage is phenomenally better and you essentially live like royalty (at least in comparison to the other two versions of you). So what changed?



These workers don’t complain. (spencer cooper/FlickrCC)

When the transition happens too fast

Farmers were replaced by machinery and they became manufacturers. Manufacturers were replaced by automated assembly lines and they went on to become computer engineers. The more people in a society who can be free to think, create and do things that don’t involve sustaining that society (like farming or moving things), the more people you have available to be artists, scientists and entrepreneurs. This leads to more discoveries, which in turn, frees more people to think and so on. Humanity has been doing this for millennia.

But this process of replacing one occupation with another has always been slow. Society needs time to adjust to a change in required skill sets. In truth, few farmers really retrain as manufacturers and few manufacturers go on to become computer engineers. It is much more likely to be the next generation that trains into the new skill set modern society requires. The farmers’ children go on to be manufacturers and the manufacturers' children become computer scientists. But at some point, the rate of change may happen quicker than children take to grow up. At some point, the manufacturer has to retrain as a computer engineer… or confront a life with no livelihood.


A factory left to rust. Its workers are gone. (Image Credit: Thomas Hawk/FlickrCC)

In fact we have already passed that point; it occurred around the end of World War II, when the manufacturing industry moved to automated manufacturing. A prime example of this is Detroit, a city that grew from a population of 300,000 in 1900 to almost two million in 1950 due to automotive manufacturing. But soon after that 1950 peak, through a mix of poor management, global competition and automation, the manufacturing jobs disappeared, and the people did not. Detroit suffered. In 2012, Detroit was murder capital of the U.S., and in 2013 it filed for bankruptcy. This problem was not unique to one city: large parts of once-prosperous countries are now poor simply because the industry there collapsed relatively quickly.

From a social view point, having millions more people free to do more complex tasks is good. It leaves more people to be artists and scientists and entrepreneurs in much the same way reducing the number of farmers and manufacturers did.

For the millions of individuals who have suddenly lost their jobs, this evolution is very bad. As a society, we are not good at helping them to retrain. Instead we leave them to rust. Should we as a society pay to retrain workers whose jobs become obsolete, or do we just get used to living in Detroit?

These questions are important, and we need to be talking about them now. We stand on a technological precipice, a tipping point, a time in human history that rivals the discovery of farming and the Industrial Revolution.

Recently a computer program passed the entrance exam to a university. Robots can cook and work in retail. Robots can learn, and we’re learning to make them learn faster. There are even computer programs that can rewrite themselves to be more efficient.

We need to decide now what we will do about those drivers displaced in the name of progress because what we do now will set a precedent. A precedent for what society does with the rest of us when technology comes for our jobs. How long before we have to retrain the computer scientists? What will their children want to be?

The ConversationLeon Vanstone, Postdoctoral Fellow in Aeromechanics, University of Texas at Austin

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Banner Image Credit: JLS Photography/FlickrCC

Discussion — 29 Responses

  • wildzbill January 14, 2016 on 12:03 pm

    It seems that we can either retrain people better, or support them as useless people for the rest of their lives.
    So, I vote for retraining.
    But eventually every job can be automated. So there is no retraining possible.
    If AI reaches an IQ level above 100, it can even be creative. So forget about a future where people are the artists and entrepreneurs.
    I think that the best survival technique would be to learn to enjoy and appreciate everything that you have, every day.

    • Gear Mentation wildzbill January 17, 2016 on 1:49 pm

      Right, but enhance yourself to enjoy more, and know and learn better.

    • airamericaman wildzbill January 17, 2016 on 2:31 pm

      1.) Basic income for every adult. When the AI’s and robots take over no one will need to starve.

      2.) Unemployed folks will need to learn to hunt and build shelter for themselves and their loved ones.

  • dobermanmacleod January 14, 2016 on 12:31 pm

    There is no meaningful debate necessary: as machines replace humans in the majority of jobs, those people must still have money to spend in a consumer economy. What is lost in the discussion is that technological progress is exponential across a wide range, so while driverless cars are perfected, so are better rocket engines, radical longevity medical treatments, and food production/distribution.

    The end result is an economy based upon abundance, not scarcity. Yes, we still need a rational way to ration goods (at least for a while), but we need less and less jobs to produce those goods and services. Yet, human beings in an abundance economy are even more valuable, not divided into the makers and the takers like today. We want more people, so they can migrate to other settlements within our solar system. Furthermore, even a thousand worthless eaters are worth supporting (for virtually nothing, since we have abundance), so one maker can create even further wealth.

    Driverless cars do mean cheaper, but they primarily mean safer. People are very valuable, and we will be able to live up to our full potential, with gene therapy driven self-evolution, and increasingly sophisticated education and entertainment. We will routinely boost humans outside the Earth’s gravity well to population extraterrestrial settlements that are mining and manufacturing exponential production facilities, dwellings, and all the goods that humans need to live a very very happy life.

    • Paul Ferguson dobermanmacleod January 17, 2016 on 12:40 am

      Grest comment.

  • Quantium January 14, 2016 on 2:23 pm

    Also consider the enormous army of lawyers, police, prison officers, insurance clerks and so on that administer the (very necessary) rules of the road. They too will have to find something else to do.

    • evivar Quantium September 22, 2016 on 1:03 am

      As an insurance industry employee, I share the concern for displaced workers. This technology will likely not hit the mass market in our generation, I think it’s great that these questions are being asked now and this subject is being addressed proactively. Auto is not the only aspect of insurance, there is opportunity in homeowner’s insurance, finance, worker’s comp etc. I do not foresee this technology eliminating the need for insurance, we will just need to adapt to society’s needs. The bigger picture is that this technology is potentially lifesaving.

  • Takeshi Young January 14, 2016 on 4:53 pm

    What about the possibility that the AI driving these cars decides to kill all its human passengers, if not through malice then through a bug (all programs have bugs) or a virus? The average AI driver may be safer than the average human, but if all cars run the same program or are networked together, it opens up the possibility of mass failure. Entrusting all human lives in the hands of machines is a terrifying proposition.

    • Paul Ferguson Takeshi Young January 17, 2016 on 12:43 am

      This to me is like saying “what if all the airplanes in the sky decide to nosedive at the same time?”, because they are already virtually automated. The bugs are currently being worked out, it should be vastly safer.

  • brianwsnyder January 14, 2016 on 7:42 pm

    Some (many?) autonomous vehicles will need people in a role other than driver. Think of that shipment of Oxycontin (unless 3D/bio/chem printing gets to the point where people can manufacture narcotics at home (well top grade stuff, not something like meth)) or Corvettes (sports cars will remain human driver-powered, as a niche, until outlawed and regulated to private tracks) or the Loomis Armored truck (cash isn’t going away any time soon)– items that if unguarded will always get stolen. Everything of value is shipped via truck and those items will need to be guarded somehow. A gang of motivated individuals can stop and disable a driverless vehicle and overcome any kind of lock it has securing its cargo.

    • Kevin Estes brianwsnyder January 18, 2016 on 2:40 pm

      OK. I’ve got a ton a oxycontin at my factory that needs to get to New York. Let’s assume a robot security guard is not good enough to stop a “gang of motivated individuals”. I have other options. I can send out ten robot trucks with only one holding the oxycontin, the rest, simple aspirin. All the boxes are labeled “Talcum Powder” Only a barcode reader at the other end knows what is what.
      Or I can load each truck with a minute amount of oxycontin so there’s much less incentive hijack it.
      Since there is no driver there are no windshields to break into and no need for pee, eat or sleep stops. And the doors won’t open till the truck is safely home in New York.
      If the thieves do decide to steal the whole truck, it would immediately send out an all-points GPS bulletin that it had been nabbed.

  • brianwsnyder January 14, 2016 on 7:46 pm

    And what becomes of automobile insurance? This is an industry based on the sole fact that people make mistakes. Over 90% of accidents are human error. When online shopping became common, delivery companies benefited. Autonomous vehicles will have the inverse effect on auto insurance companies.

    • Paul Ferguson brianwsnyder January 17, 2016 on 12:46 am

      Google has already publicly stated they will take liability for any accident. That is tremendous confidence. Yes, you might want to short the auto insurance industry in about 3 years.

  • shin January 15, 2016 on 11:40 am

    We have to remember that until recently, nerd culture was a tiny minority of the overall population. By that I mean we need to stop assuming everyone wants to be George Jetson, pushing buttons at a console. We have to stop assuming that because you or I enjoy programming or engineering, or statistical analysis, chemistry, etc., that the rest of the world will follow. That’s the hubris of the tech industry. What actually happened is many of hard working portion of the population became jocks under the rise of automation and foreign imports, and then the jocks became unemployed couch potatoes playing video games in the basement of their parents, during the waves of first person shooters and high resolution sports games. The ban on things like dodge ball don’t help. Far less than 10% of society will naturally migrate toward intellectual pursuits. For the remaining 90+%, they are keen to to use the 90% of their bodies, including grey matter to do something else.

    It is also naive to assume that our favorite tech jobs won’t be replaced by artificial intelligence programs designed to duplicate the same routines we use to remain gainfully employed. First they came for the carriage drivers and blacksmiths, and we said nothing. Then they came for the factory workers, and we said nothing. Now they come for the truck drivers, pilots, and taxi drivers, and what will we say? For tomorrow they come for the engineers, the managers, and the executives, and who will defend us?

    • horseshoe7 shin January 16, 2016 on 6:49 am

      The main thing is to replace the teachers, police, and firefighters with robots, and break the stranglehold of the CA state employees unions… that stranglehold is why CA will be the LAST state Google, Tesla, and all the rest, should be lobbying to come up with reasonable regulations for driverless vehicles.

  • Richard Joye January 15, 2016 on 3:50 pm

    To some extent this is a short-term problem and actually this is addressing the wrong problem. One should not just think about what to do with soon-to-be useless drivers (taxi, trucks, urban buses…) but rather re-think the very basic notion of commuting and road usage. Technology is changing the way people communicate, work, where we live and will live, is affecting urban planning and development to an unprecedented level. Self-driving cars are a short-term evolution, not a revolution or a real disruption. Cars on a massive scale is a very recent phenomenon, juste few decades, but dictated some urbanism rules and the whole development of road networks (over trains). Time to rethink the whole thing instead of just adapting. Because the real disruption will happen later and will have a deeper impact on our lives and on workers.

  • horseshoe7 January 16, 2016 on 6:22 am

    The replacement of inner city light rail by the automobile in the late 40’s/early 50’s offers some insight on how this transition will transpire… in that case, Detroit automakers and the Big Oil companies lobbied local/state/federal governments to dismantle the vast trolley systems that existed up until that time… this time it will be Google’s & Tesla’s lobbying money that will effect(force)the transition to driverless technology.

  • SweetDoug January 16, 2016 on 9:38 am

    We need to decide now what we will do about those drivers

    I’m all ears, guy…

    Perhaps the question that should be asked is not ‘What will we do’, but ‘What options will be available for ‘them’ to do?’

    And that ‘them’ will be an ever growing %tage of the population.

    And sorry, I’m not of the chin-dribbling utopian crowd that we’ll all become ‘artists and scientists and entrepreneurs’.

    I don’t want your crappy hanging lion art, either.

    The elephant in the room is that there simply will not be enough work to go around.

    Coincident with this, is that there will be, much predicated upon the die-off of the baby-boomers, helping to reduce the population at least in NA over the next 25 years, but the unimaginable deflation that will occur as those that die, do what with their homes and crap they’ve accumulated?

    Sell it off. Or at least their children do.

    What bothers me, is reading the blurbs about the driverless future, is the idea being conveyed that it’s not about ‘disemploying people’ but rather, facilitating the driving experience.

    I know ßµ££$ɧφwhen I hear it and trust me: It’s all about disemploying people.

    And it’s coming. Fast. Like that tidal wave a few years back that seemed ever so small on the horizon, only to, minutes later, be on top of people.

    Think how quickly the VCR took hold? Then to be supplanted ever more rapidly, by the DVD player, which is now gathering dust on your ‘home entertainment unit’.

    And the cell phone. Now a mini computer.

    3D printing, robotics, and VR will wipe out most day to day jobs, or only require a few people to oversee the work.

    Do you really think I’m going to send my kid to school when I can download online VR courses made unimaginably engaging and accessible to teach my child?

    Classrooms will become archaic, anachronisms.

    How will we support the masses with no income? Mincome? Not on my back you won’t. Sorry to be so… Human.

    Bread and circuses come to mind, but that’s just more deception until we run out of money to pay for all the people.

    Birth control?

    Frankly, the question you should be asking is what are the countries like China going to do with all the people they don’t need?

    And the answer, whether you like it or not, as demonstrated by history is…

    To kill them.


    • Gear Mentation SweetDoug January 17, 2016 on 1:44 pm

      Actually that’s not true. Population hasn’t been reduced much by war. I don’t know what you’re referring to.

      • horseshoe7 Gear Mentation January 19, 2016 on 9:26 am

        I think SweetDoug is close to the problem at hand – but is wrong about war being the eventual “solution”… after all, robots will also be replacing US soldiers “boots on the ground”.

        An idle mind is the devil’s workshop – and all these disaffected idlers will have nothing but time on their hands to complain (protest and riot ala WLM); we are going to need MILLIONS of riot suppression robots, armed with shock sticks, tear gas, and water cannon.

      • SweetDoug Gear Mentation January 22, 2016 on 12:25 pm

        The Chicoms under Mao killed 80 million people in the great leap forward in the 60s. The Russians, Stalin, starved 20 million in the Ukraine. The Khmer Rouge killed millions in their political battle to rid themselves of unwanted people.

        When the great unwashed have no jobs, it’s always a moment ripe for revolution, and the ones in power tend not to like to be removed for said positions of power.


    • Gear Mentation SweetDoug January 17, 2016 on 1:48 pm

      And as far as instituting a basic income on “your back,” do you really understand what’s happening? If what you say is true, it won’t be on your back: it will be on the back of the robot that replaced you. We will have a Greek society, an elite with slaves society, only the slaves will be robots. It’s the ideal, not a dystopia. What, you think the labor of your back will be needed? No? Then how would a basic income be on “your back?”

      • horseshoe7 Gear Mentation January 19, 2016 on 12:21 pm

        It depends on how much money the “government’s cut” will be out of the robots’ productivity – if it is significant and endlessly increasing – then we are right back where we started from, with government sloth, wastefulness, corruption, nosiness, and tax thievery destroying our chance for utopia… look at California right now, which had a chance at the “driver’s seat” in the driverless car technology revolution, but whose government employee union controlled legislature and governor’s policies will force California to be the LAST state that should have any say in the regulations regarding driverless vehicles.

  • Gear Mentation January 17, 2016 on 1:43 pm

    Great article. But retraining people for jobs which will be automated by the time they get out of school… no need to even mention this, as it is not a solution.

  • Mark Martin January 19, 2016 on 7:36 am

    We should move to the three day work week. Half work Monday through Wednesday , the others Thursday thru Saturday. Everyone closed on the sabbath. For God, family and the arts.

    • horseshoe7 Mark Martin January 19, 2016 on 1:11 pm

      If you are only working 60% of the time, vs. the amount of time you worked before the 3-day work week, will you accept a 40% pay cut? No? Then why should we employ you at all?

    • horseshoe7 Mark Martin January 20, 2016 on 6:46 pm

      Face the facts – the vast majority of vehicle drivers are un-retrainable… all the American engineers are all already being replaced by H-1B foreign engineers at “pennies on the dollar” (they’ll live 4 to a room, and 16 to a house); even Disney has pulled this crap. There are over 100,000,000 Americans out of work right now – REAL unemployment is roughly 35% right now. Luckily, we have an abundance of food; and close to an abundance of shelter (can’t help those that refuse to be helped)… I really think some kind of “Minimum Guaranteed Income” will need to be instituted, and we can ditch all the fakery and wastefulness of Welfare, Food Stamps, Disability, 99 weeks of Unemployment, and all the other BS.

  • horseshoe7 January 19, 2016 on 1:38 pm

    “But soon after that 1950 peak, through a mix of poor management, global competition and automation, the manufacturing jobs disappeared”

    Uh, excuse me, but what’s with the revisionist history bull? It was UNION sloth that destroyed Detroit… automation should have INCREASED US automakers’ competitiveness.

  • TheFuturePrimative January 20, 2016 on 9:04 am

    The simple facts are between “hyper productivity,” the consolidation of wealth (asset ownership) into 0.01% of the population and the expansion of globalization n labor markets that all labor and household incomes will decline. Added to this you are seeing the encroachment of private sector goods and services into government mandated payments to large corporations; health insurance payments and medicare prescription drugs come to mind.

    Supply/Demand and Mother Nature will rule the day. It does not matter how clever your AI is. People are getting poorer and hence their choices will be limited. There is no self driving car in every garage. You might hail one as a cab, but of course you must tell the government what you are doing and why.

    Look at your own costs right now. Oil is at a 12 year low. In some cases the price of the barrel containing oil is in fact more expensive than the oil itself. A gallon of gas is more expensive than a gallon of water many places. Yet ask yourself, do you pay more for insurance each month than you do for fuel? At what point do you throw away the things you don’t use that you cannot afford?

    People included.