Who will help the carless driver?

By Eirik Venberget

Most of the things you own, and certainly all of what is for sale in any supermarket or store, has been on a truck. It is such a crucial part of our economic system that it has become an integral part of our lives. We seldom stop to think about the importance the truck – and the driver – plays for us to obtain all the things we so deeply desire and rely on.

On the other side, there is something that we have known for a long time; that the driverless car is coming. In fact, since the early 1980s car manufacturers have been researching and developing autonomous cars, intended to make our lives more pleasant, productive and safe as we commute or travel. The technology of today is sufficiently sophisticated to start rolling out autonomous cars. However, legislation and perhaps overly cautious scepticism has prevented this from happening on a large scale.

Few have taken into consideration the revolution this will eventually lead to for career drivers. If you think Uber is a real challenge to the taxi industry, wait until the ubers are made wholly redundant as you drunkenly instruct your car to take you home after a night out. If you think Amazon and their custom-made jumbo jet revolutionised parcel delivery, wait until the book you just ordered is dropped off in bubble wrap by an autonomous drone. And if you think cheap labour from foreign countries took work off local lorry drivers, wait until our roads are filled with self-driving trucks, stopping only to drop off our electronics, clothes, and food.

According to Statistics Norway, there were 62 000 occupational drivers in Norway in 2014. Or should we perhaps refer to them as future unemployed Norwegians? In the US, there are 3.5 million truck drivers. They make up the biggest job sector in 29 out of the 50 states. Needless to say, their future labour displacement will significantly impact the American economy. Many or most of these people will not have the necessary education and experience that is required to easily transition into another occupation.

We have failed to prepare for this inevitable change. And make no mistake, it will have serious ramifications for our society as a larger part of our workforce becomes long-term unemployed. Much media attention has been given to the loss of manufacturing jobs from the western world to developing countries. However, manufacturing in developed countries has been steadily declining since the 1950s. This next robotic revolution might happen at a much faster pace, and with even more serious ramifications.

The pace and severity of this development will be determined by suppliers, consumers and regulators. On the supply side, a plethora of technology companies, car producers and research institutions are already knee-deep in the mass-production of driver-assisting tech and hardware, including Google, Tesla, Apple, BMW, Audi, Toyota, GM, Nvidia, and VW. Traditionally, the suppliers have been ahead of the curve in autonomy, as seen with the sudden surprise when Tesla suddenly introduced its driver-assistance software update to the Model S. It is difficult to accurately predict how consumers will react to self-driving cars, but from a business point-of-view one can easily imagine that general managers in the logistics industry see the benefits of making an investment in self-driving trucks. After all, self-driving trucks will never ask for raises, pensions, days off, or health insurance.

Precisely this is what should worry our legislatures. Business is fundamentally rational; if it can save on expenses, it will. It is the surplus of labour that will come from automation we need to focus on – much more than technical, legal aspects such as who is to blame if there is an accident. Until now, the latter has been given prominence. It must be said that autonomous vehicles will play an important part in solving many of the problems we face in the world today. But if we fail to act on the side-effects now, they might come back to haunt us later – or at least the truck drivers.