Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector

29 January 2014



Technnological unemployment has been back in the news in a big way. There was a widely reported study, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation? by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne (cf. Half of jobs to be lost to computerisation?), and recently The Economist devoted a cover to the topic (Coming to an office near you…), with several stories inside the magazine considering technological unemployment from a variety of perspectives.

I have visited the question of technological unemployment several times, most particularly in the following posts:

Automation and the Human Future

Addendum on Automation and the Human Future

Technological Unemployment and the Future of Humanity

Addendum on Technological Unemployment

Developments that touch upon technological unemployment — the actual automation technologies, our understanding of these technologies, and the conceptual infrastructure employed in attempting to make sense of economic and technological trends — evolve so rapidly that it is necessary to revisit the question on a regular basis, even while sedulously remaining focused on the big picture so that we do not mistake some passing and ephemeral trend for a development that will define a new era of history.

The big picture of technological unemployment is that it is part of the ongoing industrial revolution, which changed the relationship of human beings to each other and to the planet they occupy, and which continues to unfold with unprecedented developments. Some who write about the industrial revolution make a series of distinctions between the first, second, and nth industrial revolutions, but none of these finer distinctions have been universally recognized, so they only tend to create confusion. Indeed, when I was reading an article about technological unemployment last week the writer called technological employment the second industrial revolution, either unaware or unconcerned that others have already called previous developments (as, for example, electrification or assembly-line production) the second industrial revolution.

I prefer to think of the industrial revolution as one, long, unfinished process, beginning in England with the use of fossil fueled steam engines to power machinery and changing continuously up to the present day, as new technologies emerge from the previous generation of technologies. This technological innovation that began the industrial revolution and sustains it in our time I have called the STEM cycle. Because of the STEM cycle, the industrial revolution continues to revolutionize itself, always producing new technologies and new technological dislocations in the socioeconomic system, but it is the structure of technological change itself that defines the industrial revolution and the industrialized societies that have arisen in its wake.

The same conditions that held in the earliest automation of formerly manual tasks continue to hold today: some tasks are easier to automate than are other tasks, and some parts of a given task are easier to automate than other parts of the same task. The automated production process tends to break down tasks into their simplest constituents, automate the automatable tasks, and then stitch together the whole in an assembly-line production process in which the gaps between automated tasks are filled by human workers who continue to perform the tasks (and parts of tasks) that cannot be readily automated. Thus industrialization gives us the “job of the gaps” employment structure, and continuing technological innovations narrow these gaps, reducing employment.

However, even as entire classes of employment disappear, new classes of employment appear — as unprecedented as the technological innovations that spelled the end of previous forms of employment — and this has allowed industrialized economies to continue their balancing act of keeping the majority of their populations employed while enjoying the rising productivity that results from continuous technological improvement of the production process. However, there is no guarantee that this balancing act can be maintained indefinitely — or even that this would be a desirable state of affairs. Imagining a permanent future of dead-end industrial jobs is a kind of dystopian scenario that offers little hope. However, the utopian scenario of human beings freed from stultifying labor by technological unemployment seems too good to be true.

I will discuss some of the implications for technological unemployment in relation to the transportation industry, since I know something about the transportation industry, having earned by income in the industry for the past three decades. The rapidity of the development of self-driving cars (autonomous vehicles) is a testament to the rapid gains of technology and computerization as they bear upon transportation. When, in the past, people imagined an automated road transportation network (and this is a staple of futurist thought that has been imagined many times), it was assumed that radio transponders would have to be built into roads and infrastructure to guide a vehicle along. Instead, laser range finders and radars construct a local map of the terrain, which is then compared to high resolution maps of the actual environment, and the precision of GPS systems allows the vehicle to navigate through the map. (Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that, but that’s the abbreviated version.)

The development of autonomous vehicles is a potential boon to the transportation industry. One of the greatest challenges to the industry has been the ability of motor carriers to find a sufficient number of drivers to haul their loads, and recent hours of service (HOS) regulation changes have increased the limitations on the number of hours a driver can drive in a day and in a week. Autonomous commercial vehicles, when they become both practicable and legal, would potentially mean unlimited freight capacity and trucks operating twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Driver shortage would no longer be a problem for freight haulers.

While most driving is routine and could easily be handled by an autonomous vehicle, there is a significant portion of the driving day which is likely to elude automation for some time to come. Driving a tractor-trailer within a congested urban area is much more difficult that driving a passenger vehicle in the same conditions, and it will take longer to automate this process than the hours on the open highway between major urban centers. There is nothing in principle that cannot be automated, and when the technology is available it is likely that autonomous tractor-trailers will be safer in traffic than human drivers. However, a single severe collision involving injury or a fatality would likely be picked up by the media and one would expect a headline something like, “Killer Robot Trucks on our Highways!” This would likely to delay the development of the industry for years, if not decades. Due to the obvious liability issues, one would expect that the technology would not be rolled out until it is fully mature, and even then accidents will happen. (I have elsewhere argued that industrial accidents are intrinsic to and ineradicable features of industrial-technological civilization, and traffic accidents are among the most common of industrial accidents.)

Other than the complexities of driving in crowded urban conditions that put other drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians at risk of life and limb, there are aspects of freight hauling that will not be easily automated. Another aspect of our industrial-technological civilization is that it runs clock around and year round. There is never a break. Freight moves every day of the year, and if the transportation infrastructure is slowed or stopped, store shelves are quickly bare. Other than unpredictable snow storms that shut down highways, there are predictable inclement weather conditions that occur on all roads at high elevations. In the continental US, thousands of trucks every day go through mountain passes, and it is not usual in the Rockies or the Cascade Range for drivers in mountainous areas to chain up their vehicles every day simply to be able to complete their trip. Tire chains are a nearly archaic technology, but they are effective, and nothing else will get a truck through snow and ice like chains. Believe me, I’ve been there. I know whereof I speak.

I think it will be a very long time before any robot or automated system will be able to chain up a tractor-trailer in inclement weather conditions. There are automatic chains available, but their use is limited, and they won’t get you through deep snow. Putting tire chains on a tractor-trailer is physically demanding and difficult to do well. No doubt there is a way to automate the process, but it won’t happen in a robust form any time soon — and here by “robust form” I mean a dependable way of getting a truck through a mountain pass on a daily basis.

I can foresee a day when tractor-trailers are automated for long stretches of highway in flat country, and dual-purpose vehicles are sometimes piloted autonomously and sometimes driven by human drivers. It might be possible to station drivers on the outskirts of cities, who would then get into autonomous vehicles and drive them within urban areas. Or drivers might be stationed at the bottom of mountain rangers, and get in the trucks to take them over the pass. But in a severe winter, the snows come down the side of the mountains, and the stationing of drivers to take over in inclement conditions might have to change daily. Under such conditions, it would be an open question as to whether it would be more cost effective to simply keep drivers in the trucks all day rather than attempt to constantly shuttle drivers to where they would need to be to take over autonomous vehicles where these vehicles could no longer safely operate. So truck drivers aren’t yet quite out of a job, even when autonomous tractor-trailers become a reality.

The process of automating commercial vehicles is likely to spread out over many decades, which will allow for realignment of employment within the industry over time. And driving, of course, is not the only job within the transportation industry. There is the warehousing and loading of freight, maintenance of vehicles, and many other functions. It will be a very long time before automated roadside service for breakdowns will be possible. Autonomous vehicles will be more technologically complex even than the trucks on the road today, and they will break down with some regularity (breakdowns, like industrial accidents, are an intrinsic part of industrial-technological civilization). Automated vehicles broken down on the shoulder of the road will have to be serviced by human technicians for many decades to come, and a stranded automated vehicle would also be a soft target for cargo theft, which creates a new kind of “opportunity” for human beings within an automated economy.

. . . . .

…and so it begins… Dutch Trucks Will Drive Themselves …note in relation to the above that there are no mountain ranges in Holland.

. . . . .


. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

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7 Responses to “Autonomous Vehicles and Technological Unemployment in the Transportation Sector”

  1. me again said

    I see where you are going with the mountain snow example, but really, we are only talking about a pitstop that can be performed at a gas station by relatively unskilled labor… I see companies forming doing just that, and just getting contracts with on the route gas stations.

    Also, ABS is safer then human drivers. I see no reason why computers would not be safer in a snowstorm condition. They also magnificently excel precisely in urban areas as of late (what driver is able to monitor 360, and use radar, visual and infrared, while doing that… The only “problem” being that automated vehicles are “too nice” and would stand all day at an intersection waiting for people to let it to pass (i.e. drivers break rules in a small way all the time to make things flow)

    Anyway, that’s the pinch with technology… When capitalism introduced nonautomated lines for mass production and it put unskilled labor on those same lines, it fixed technological issues that were present at the time that “required” highly skilled labor doing *all* the things… It’s going to do the same with this tech.

    The presented scenario above will probably be cheaper and maybe even safer in the long run, though I guess the machines will not drive in as adverse conditions as humans do during snow. Hence they might get stuck in snow.

    Though again, a dedicated pullout crew attached to snowplows, behind them in cars would do the trick more efficiently then a vehicle driver…

    In any case, those problems won’t be problems for too long… You are right that’s it’s going to have hitches, but it won’t last decades, even with “Killer robots on highways” articles. The news don’t have too much power when profits are concerned…

    Best wishes,
    me again.

  2. me again said

    I forgot car networking, that would extend prediction capability of automated cars… I.E. the more networked (not neccessarily auto) cars on the road, the safer the road gets.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Definitely, yes, cars (and trucks) networked and “talking” to each other would make the roads safer. However, at some point there will come a conflict between the safety of the overall transportation system as governed by autonomous algorithms and the demands of autonomy likely to be made by the remaining human drivers.

      Best wishes,


  3. xcalibur said

    The automobile is one of the technological building blocks of the modern age. Although airplanes have taken on a major role in transportation (especially long distance personal transport) and trains are still relevant (especially for freight), motor vehicles are ubiquitous.

    I mean no offense to the truck driver I’m commenting to, but I see the automobile as inefficient. I can see its strengths, especially in being able to travel to any address at any time. But as industrial accidents go, car accidents are very destructive – many people are killed, damage is expensive, and they can shut down traffic for hours. Speaking of which, traffic jams are massively inefficient. And of course, we have to burn through our limited supply of fossil fuels to move legions of cars around, which in the long run is unsustainable. There are also much better uses for fossil fuels – using it up on transportation seems wasteful.

    Our industrial-technological civilization has partially been planned (especially urban centers and the highway system) but it has also grown organically. Naturally the best way to reconcile planned and organic growth, and link urban/suburban/rural areas together, is with the car. While the automobile is the most natural solution, it’s not the best for the reasons I outlined. Personally I’d like to see much more mass transit in the form of rail and light rail. Although there have been efforts towards this, they’ve been slowed considerably by red tape and bureaucracy. Electric cars are also promising for solving the problem of fossil fuel consumption, but that technology is still in its infancy.

    Maybe if the urban/nomad paradigm comes about (civilization based around megacities surrounded by stretches of wilderness inhabited by nomads) we can move past reliance on the car, but that possibility is not in the near future.

    Much of this reply is based on this: but I wanted to keep all my replies on one site.

    • geopolicraticus said

      The automobile is not only a technological building block of our age, it is also a cultural touchstone — both a product of and a reinforcement mechanism for American-style individualism. In the US, getting your license and a car is a Rite of Passage. It is one of the few rituals that we have in industrial-technological civilization, though in the most crowded cities a car is more of a burden than an asset.

      All this will change, but it will take time. How much time? Hard to say. In the most densely populated cities and the corridors that connect them the change will probably come with shocking rapidity, but in the wide-open spaces of the inter-mountain west — the American Steppe, which will be given back over to uninhabited grasslands in the event of the pastoralization scenario — cars will continue to play an important role.

      While cars have been central to the second century of the Industrial Age, they are an artifact of a particular civilization and a particular technology at a particular time. Just as we can now look at pictures of 19th century harbors filled with tall ships, so too someday we will look at pictures of shopping mall parking lots filled with cars, and we will marvel that such things were once commonplace. Most people drive out of necessary, not pleasure, and they aren’t very good at it. Taking this burden from them will leave driving oneself to enthusiasts and eccentrics.

      In much of Europe and Asia one sees extensive rail and mass transit, partly due to urban densities, but also partly due to the absence of American individualism. So I think we are much more likely to see a gradual automation of our existing highway system, with individual autonomous cars taking individuals on their individual errands. I, too, would like to see a robust passenger rail system in the US, but I don’t see any government or private entity yet willing to splash out the capital to make it happen. So it will take time, and in the meantime autonomous vehicles will simply use the existing road network and become common without people noticing that any great change has occurred.

      Best wishes,


  4. xcalibur said

    I agree with all that. Cars are part and parcel of the current historical era. I’m not sure if they’re a linchpin technology like the transistor (which made the computer/internet revolution possible) but they’re an integral part of society.

    You could identify other eras with certain technologies. As you pointed out, sailing ships defined the early modern era (and 19th century), as did muskets and the printing press (although it was invented in the late medieval era). Medieval Europe was characterized by the heavy plow, horseshoe, stirrup, and development of watermills/windmills. Ancient Rome relied on paved roads and aqueducts, etc. Of course, this is just an overview of hard technologies – the soft technologies of social organization (like social contracts and economic theories) are a much more complex topic.

    As for the next step of cars, I see electric cars as a realistic advance and one that I’m hoping for. As for automation, I think the most likely advance is an automated highway system, in which cars are driven manually on local roads, but submit to automation on highways. The driver would signal the exit ahead of time. EZ-pass is the very beginning of this.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Based on your remarks, a distinction could be made between socially relevant technologies and linchpin technologies, where the former shape our socioeconomic development but do not necessarily alter the developmental pathway of civilization, while the latter do alter the developmental pathway of our civilization, regardless of whether or not they visibly shape socioeconomic life. Certainly the telecommunications and computer revolutions have shaped our socioeconomic life in both fundamental and disruptive ways, but the development of the technology itself is a technical task, not driven by social pressures, whereas socially relevant technologies are primarily driven by social pressures.

      The agricultural technologies of medieval Europe might be compared to the technical advances of the modern world, not primarily being driven by social pressures, but the omnipresent role of the Catholic church in the life of medieval Europe was, we could say, a socially relevant technology not driven by the technical imperatives that drove agriculture.

      Electric autonomous vehicles will make a very big impact on the US cultural landscape (and note that this is an application of computers and telecommunications to a socially relevant technology, but that the technical advances come first), but less impact in the crowded cities of Eurasia where the greater part of the human population resides at present. In these large cities public transportation is already dominant, and they don’t have the overwhelming American sense of individualism that is so central to US automobile culture.

      Best wishes,


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