Will Driverless Cars Take Over the Roads?

Technological advances can be both a blessing and a curse. One’s labour saving invention can be another’s pink slip. But technology itself is value neutral. Tools can build or destroy – heal or wound. It’s up to us to choose. Well, at least for now it is.

We appreciate machines for taking on dangerous, arduous, and monotonous work, but there’s a catch— the benefits can accrue unevenly. Firms like Uber may create enormous valuations by “disrupting” industries, but what happens to the workers?

Ideally, those who were displaced by advances would quickly be scooped up by jobs created by other ones. And if we wanted things to be fair we would need these new roles to be compensated equally, if not better. Failing this, people who find themselves on the losing end of such equations are left to scramble.

Many of the tasks auto workers performed were relatively easy to replace with robots because they were highly repetitive, but repair work adds multiple layers of complexity. Mechanics need to be able to determine root causes and probable solutions, and have the knowledge and ability necessary to perform the work. Add to that the mountain of makes and models which mushrooms further each year and it’s understandable that the complexity would seem enough to keep the robots at bay, but I’m not so sure.

In the past, tech primarily replaced lower skilled workers, but we’re wading into a major wave of advances – one that could reach far further into the ranks of labour than in prior years. Some robots can now learn by being shown a task, and others learn by watching YouTube videos, so one with the right combination of strength and dexterity might be able to learn any standard repair. The question isn’t whether tech will invade new frontiers, but rather which careers (if any) will remain safe? If you work for wages, you should see this for what it is—an attempt to replace jobs. If most or all of your income comes from wages, technology’s accelerating advancement should give you pause for thought:

– Will technology invade your industry? What sort of work might your skills translate to?

– What kinds of jobs are being created that you might pursue?

– Is the economy creating ‘good’ jobs fast enough to take up the workers who are being displaced?

– What happens to society if ‘good’ jobs are continually replaced with lesser jobs, or none at all?

American economist Noah Smith recently wrote an interesting article on the future of driverless cars. Professor Smith suggests that technology will bring a lot of positives to humanity: fewer accidents, lower costs of transportation, greater productivity, lower stress, and the freedom from the burden of an actively-driven, long commute. He also suggests some potential negatives, including increased greenhouse gases from longer commutes. Noah’s final point discusses the disruptive potential these vehicles might represent for public transportation, asking if commuters can work (or relax) in the comfort of their own car, for a similar cost, why wouldn’t many want to do so?

Source: Wikimedia

We could see fully publicly owned transportation systems in the future, or we might see a continued (if reconfigured) mix of public infrastructure, as well as firm and individually-owned vehicles. The solution will likely vary by locale and could depend on a host of circumstances including: density, topography, and socioeconomic factors. Given my druthers, I’d like to see driverless cars (and buses) cover the last legs of an updated hub and spoke public infrastructure. Doing so could greatly reduce car ownership, traffic, and CO2 emissions.

Speaking of buses, those run by Silicon Valley’s tech giants are maligned, but they do provide a great benefit to the city in the form of reduced driving. To drive further reductions, I’d take this exclusive benefit and open it up to all. One survey found that close to 50 per cent would drive if they lost the “Google bus” option. Given the chance, a significant portion of today’s solo commuters might be happy to hop on board.

Driverless cars present an interesting twist on philosophy’s trolley problem, which asks whether you’d sacrifice one life to save several. In this case, the choice will be made by software, and the question becomes: “Would you sacrifice yourself?” But the car’s ‘operator’ gives that agency to the driverless car. Cory Doctorow suggests that this may severely hamper adoption in stating: “No one wants a self-driving car that sometimes decides to kill its passengers.” Discussions about liability for driverless cars – and what they will ‘decide’ to do under dangerous circumstances – are just getting started. What factors will it consider when a crash is imminent, and who will be liable in the event of injury or death? Expect initial decisions to be contested, and they might end up being evaluated by high courts.

Technology is evolving rapidly. Choices made today will reverberate for years. As customers and businesses leaders, citizens and statesmen, we all have a role. Staying engaged is required. Pushing for reasonable legislation around impactful innovations is a necessity. Sticking your head in the sand is a choice of tacit acceptance of the changes that come your way. Those who do so are effectively throwing their agency beneath the wheel of a driverless car.

 

This post first appeared in SALT Magazine.