Uber steers self-driving to robots vs. jobs crash

August 18, 2016

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. 

Uber is steering its driverless vehicle technology towards a crash between robots and jobs. The private ride-hailing app worth some $66 bln on Thursday said it has bought autonomous big-rig startup Otto and that it was unleashing driverless taxis in Pittsburgh. Putting computers instead of humans behind the wheel could save lives, but would automate a task that employs millions of U.S. workers. America’s safety net is ill-prepared for such a job-destroying juggernaut.

Travis Kalanick, Uber’s chief executive, has made no secret of wanting to replace its chauffeurs with cars that can ferry passengers without driver input. Uber isn’t alone. From old-school car and truck manufacturers and parts makers to Silicon Valley interlopers like Tesla, Apple and Alphabet, dozens of companies are racing to develop driverless technology.

Along with saving valuable time, Boston Consulting Group has estimated that fully autonomous vehicles could reduce traffic accidents by 90 percent or more. That would avoid hundreds of billions of dollars of injuries, vehicle damage and lost productivity caused by traffic accidents, which kill more than 30,000 Americans each year.

There is a big downside, though. Heavy trucking employs nearly 2 million people across the United States, with a median salary of over $40,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s about double what hundreds of thousands of others employed as taxi and limousine drivers make. Both industries are now firmly in Uber’s crosshairs.

The jobs might not disappear completely, of course. Moreover, shifting from today’s limited autonomy features like automatic braking and lane correction to truly self-driving vehicles across the country is a huge technology challenge that could take years – and spark serious political resistance. Even in a fully autonomous world, freight haulers and livery services would still need mechanics and IT specialists to keep fleets rolling.

Still, the threat is clear. And America’s threadbare social safety net and worker retraining programs may struggle to support a mass-retooling of skills. That would heap further pressure on working-class communities already reeling from the loss of over 5 million manufacturing jobs over the past two decades.

Uber’s new partnerships are the latest sign that the push to driverless is accelerating. Policymakers and politicians should consider themselves forewarned.

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