Industry Disrupted: The Impact of Automation on Transportation

Artificial intelligence is no longer a futuristic whimsy relegated to the pages of science fiction books. It is here for good, and few industries are as keenly aware of AI’s dominance as transportation, where self-driving vehicles promise a major disruption in how we go about our daily lives. Autonomous vehicles offer several benefits, but for the millions of workers who might be displaced by them, they are a threat. Experts have several theories about how the economy can cope with such a shift—ideas that could serve as blueprints for other industries likely to be impacted by AI.

Self-Driving Vehicles: A Status Check

Reports about Google’s foray into self-driving cars or Tesla’s automatic driving system only hint at the momentum beating at the core of the autonomous vehicle market. Experts project that ten million self-driving cars will share the road by 2020, and Deloitte estimates they will account for 60 percent of all passenger miles by 2040.

Cars are not the only vehicles caught up in the AI revolution. Rolls-Royce recently revealed plans to develop cargo ships that can transport goods sans humans, while organizations like Amazon are experimenting with unmanned aerial vehicles.

When it comes to what market is most vulnerable to the impacts of self-driving vehicles however, few could compete with long-distance trucking. Last year in the UK, Uber demoed a self-driving truck that traveled 120 miles to deliver 50,000 beers. Events like this may seem surreal to many eager viewers, but to the nearly four million professional truck-drivers in the US—not to mention the taxi drivers and other professionals—self-driving vehicles may seem an economic threat.

The Ups and Downs of Autonomous Transportation

With the current frenzy surrounding self-driving vehicles, it is easy to forget that they serve an important purpose. When ITF Secretary-General Young Tae Kim addressed the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s International Transport Forum on the topic, he cited efficiency, sustainability, and improved safety among the biggest benefits of autonomous transportation. Also, the Future of Work Community reports that by adjusting routes based on real-time traffic data, self-driving vehicles can alleviate traffic congestion and reduce gas needs, saving employers an estimated 42.3 trillion dollars a year by 2035. However one feels about autonomous transportation, there is no denying that these AI-driven systems are replacing living, breathing human beings.

How Self-Driving Vehicles Will Impact the Job Market

While few experts deny self-driving cars and trucks will significantly impact the transportation sector, they are split as to how. Some, like Secretary-General Kim, emphasize a growing need for more tech workers who can design and program AI-driven vehicles, thereby at least partially offsetting job loss among professional drivers. Meanwhile, Deloitte notes that the benefits of self-driving vehicles could increase demand for more professionals, period. With the cost-per-mile of transportation expected to drop by two-thirds in the coming decades, more seniors and other population segments will probably hit the road. MIT economist David Autor confirmed that demand for labor historically increases with technological advances, though he warns wage polarization and economic and social turmoil tend to follow.

On the other end of the spectrum are experts who warn that new opportunities probably won’t offset the job loss posed by self-driving vehicles. Many also point out the professional drivers are far from the only workers likely to be hit by the movement. Other industries tied to consumer or commercial transportation are also at risk. Researchers at Deloitte predicted AI will impact the following jobs the most:

  • Industrial truck operators
  • Transportation inspectors
  • Traffic technicians
  • Taxi drivers and chauffeurs
  • Bus drivers
  • Highway maintenance workers
  • Parking enforcement workers
  • Heavy tractor-trailer truck drivers
  • Bus and truck mechanics
  • Light truck delivery service drivers
  • Public transport drivers
  • Auto mechanics
  • Ambulance drivers
  • Urban planners
  • Civil engineers

For these and other professionals, the question isn’t just when or how self-driving vehicles will affect the workforce, but what we intend to do about it.

Preparing for the AI Revolution: Two Ideas

According to New Atlas, a 2013 study from Oxford University warned that 47 percent of the national workforce could be displaced by automation and artificial intelligence; another study in 2015 warned 45 percent of jobs could already be replaced by machines. Job displacement of this proportion can have a much larger, much more devastating effect on the economy than many Americans realize. Fortunately, some of America’s most innovative minds are already thinking of ways to minimize the impact. The two prevailing theories: the robot tax and a universal basic income (UBI).

The Robot Tax

Championed by Bill Gates, the Robot Tax theory holds that a smaller workforce would reduce national tax revenue below sustainable levels. The solution: tax robots at similar rates as if they were human. Proponents of this solution suggest much of the revenue generated by these robot taxes could be funnelled into support and retraining programs for unemployed workers displaced by machines.

Universal Basic Income (UBI)

Elon Musk is among the most vocal proponents of shifting to a universal basic income (UBI) system. This proposes offering all U.S. citizens a regular, unconditional sum of money based on basic living expenses to be distributed monthly or annually. Americans who want to live beyond the baseline would work to supplement that income. Some experts worry such a system would discourage people to work, but according to the few UBI pilot programs, UBI recipients do overwhelmingly choose to keep their jobs. Universal basic income supporters also argue that a basic earnings system would actually be more efficient than existing social welfare systems.

Conclusion: How to Safeguard Your Career

If the research cited above is any indication, the impact artificial intelligence will have on the US job market will be huge and unpredictable. Here are a few ways now-and-future professionals can protect their futures.

  • Choose jobs wisely. High school students considering college and career-changers have an advantage unavailable to the bulk of U.S. workers: they can see AI coming. People who research the topic and review career projections from organizations like the Bureau of Labor Statistics can make more informed decisions about the future.
  • Diversify your skillset. Existing workers willing to learn new skills in job fields will have an advantage over less adventurous job competition. Community colleges frequently offer courses specifically for such workers, and online classes and training courses can help as well.
  • Stay informed. For professionals already in fields likely to be impacted by AI, knowledge is power. Stay on top of the latest news and trends so that you know if—and when—to make a change.
Aimee Hosler
Aimee Hosler

Aimee Hosler is a long-time journalist specializing in education and technology. She is an advocate for experiential learning among all ages and serves as the director of communications for a non-profit community makerspace. She holds a degree in journalism from California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

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