There are over 3 million lorry drivers in the US and millions more worldwide. Hundreds of thousands of quasi-employees driving for Uber, Lyft, and the like. That’s a lot of people relying on the road for their livelihood. But there’s a very real possibility that the vast majority of these jobs will disappear sooner rather than later.
Experts predict that 6% of all jobs in the US will be gone by 2021 due to automation. The former CEO of McDonald’s sees replacing the whole company’s restaurant workers as a simple question of economics. From software and legal help to sports reports and parcel delivery, there’s few jobs that won’t see some sort of reduction in the world force. But the world’s drivers could be most at risk.
Despite continued fear from the public, the money men at taxi, logistics, and delivery companies will have no such fear at deploying autonomous vehicles on the road. No wages, greater fuel efficiency, no worries about shift work or rest stops. It might be cold, but in terms of business sense it’s hard logic to argue with.
President Obama this week reaffirmed his support for the technology – albeit for the safety and environmental benefits rather than economic – while the Department of Transportation released new guidelines around autonomous vehicles.
Lyft have followed Uber in promising to ditch the sharing economy model as soon as it can, with Co-Founder John Zimmer this week predicting that by 2021 “the majority” of Lyft’s taxis will be autonomous. Uber’s own public trials of its self-driving vehicles started last week. Even the incumbent automakers are in the action. Ford’s own vision for the company foresees fewer cars being sold, instead focusing on services that a steering wheel-less AI car providing lifts on-demand.
Uber recently acquired Otto in a deal perceived by many for the underlying technology and expertise rather than for any desire to enter the truck market. But even if Otto never brings self-driving lorries to market, there’s no shortage of other companies working on taking people out of haulage.
While what few people that can earn a living from driving will probably earn a premium, the majority will be left out in the cold. Even the pizza delivery guys aren’t safe.
Universal Basic Income (UBI) – the idea that everyone, regardless of circumstance, gets a small monthly income to support themselves with – could work. Many predict a utopia where people are free to be creative and entrepreneurial, but technology moves faster than policy ever can. And when it comes to something as divisive as giving money away, it’s going to be a long time before we get beyond a few localised test projects in the more progressive parts of the world.
But what about the near term? Driverless cars could be on the road in less than five years and commercially viable autonomous fleets not long after. Any sort of UBI will no doubt take decades, if it happens at all.
So in the meantime: Learn to code, try your hand at painting, write a book, buy an old mainframe and get a job at IBM, become a teacher, open a microbrewery. It’s a big world with a lot of opportunities. But continuing to sit idly buy with your gearstick in your hand could be a big mistake.
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond