Automation Will End Our Economy, Unless We Do Something Now

Any day now, Waymo, Tesla, and other worldwide car manufacturers will begin commercializing their self-driving cars. The anticipation couldn’t be more uncontainable for the wired public, which has, in the past decade, eagerly shifted everyday transportation options to a digital platform — Uber, Postmates, Lyft, etc.

Our politicians, at every level of government, seem eager to usher autonomous vehicles to their ready-to-pay constituents, enabling the public’s addiction to the internet of things.

Yet are we prepared to handle this new era of personless driving?

This past spring, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation invited automobile industry leaders to Washington for a meeting in an effort to understand the development of autonomous vehicles and how these cars should be integrated into society.

But the committee members used the meeting to gawk at self-driving cars. Those committee members opted to admire the ‘really scary looking’ technology instead of asking important questions about public adoption, education, or taxation.

The senators, entranced by the possibility of living like the Jetsons, failed to seriously discuss policy, hopscotching around economic repercussions of self-driving vehicles. This behavior shouldn’t be permissible, as some cities require immediate legislative action.

One such city is Pittsburgh, PA. Pittsburgh, in a much needed effort to be innovative, announced last spring it would be a test city for Uber’s self-driving car program. Uber would test its autonomous taxis on public roads, and Pittsburgh would, presumably, be responsible for any consequences.

The people of Pittsburgh, impatient to summon a driverless vehicle to their doorsteps, waited for updates to come, either from the city or Uber. But no update came. Neither public service announcements nor a public hearing about the integration of this developing technology were provided.

Pittsburgh was more willing to appease Uber than provide information to its citizens. The city granted an unconventional amount of autonomy to Uber, essentially handing over the keys to the city. They were hoping the trouble-making company would treat the city’s roads kindly and its citizens with respect.

And, thankfully, for the past several months, Uber has done exactly that: been kind, respectful, and not a regret for Pittsburgh. But the city and the state government have slacked off in other regards: failing to regulate this nascent technology, leaving autonomous vehicles in a strange legal gray area.

After weeks of Uber being stationed in Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania state government tried to play legislative catch-up. They introduced new standards — S.B. 427 — that would facilitate the transition of “highly automated vehicles” into society. The bill was a wonderful first step for the state, regardless if it was an after-the-fact thought. The bill, if it became law, would issue safety standards and ease any displaced people while automation looms over the transportation industry.

But whether it was lack of interest or ineptness, the senate bill was tossed around a few committees and was ultimately forgotten. There is little regulation for these cars and almost no protection for the people of Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh and the state government’s intrigued yet apathetic response to self-driving cars reveals our government’s inexperience with technology. Because of Pittsburgh, we now have a forecast of how we will interact with self-driving cars at a much larger scale. It’s a prediction of how, with the guidance of government, future job markets will be affected by automation. For when Uber and other automobile companies decide to automate at a national level, a large portion of Americans are at risk: the 3 million people in the transportation industry.

Truck drivers, cab drivers, Lyft drivers, and every American in transportation, by no fault of their own, are in jeopardy of losing their jobs to cheaper, safer, autonomous drivers. For a business like Uber, an automated car only costs electricity; a person costs minimum wage. Without the government looking after its citizens and workers, Uber will choose the option of best economics: replace workers with robots.

Because of Pittsburgh’s expedited processes of integrating Uber into the city, these transportation workers should worry if their government is willing to put corporate ease over their financial well-being.

So far, actual transportation workers haven’t been afforded job security by our government. In some states, there are thin regulations protecting these workers. At a national level, there is a sole policy written by the Department of Transportation.

For someone like me — who loves seeing technology flourish, yet refuses to see 3 million Americans lose their jobs — our only solution should allow these industries to thrive while providing these soon-to-be unemployed workers with social security.

Some U.S. senators, like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, and some business leaders, like Elon Musk, have been vocal about finding a solution. They believe the answer may have nothing to do with regulation. Instead, the answer lies within universal basic income.

This is an emerging idea among world leaders — an idea that is being intermittently tested throughout developed countries. But the idea is simple: a universal basic income provides an unconditional stipend to every citizen in the United States. It’s sufficient enough to meet a person’s basic needs, and puts a person at — or just above — the poverty line. Someone could afford rent, food, and water, and is granted education and healthcare — necessities for civilized living.

We would protect transportation workers put out of a job because of automation, and we would also extend help to those affected by our rapidly changing world. For me, having a universal basic income is the only solution available.

This concept has been successful in the few countries testing it (Canada, Finland). People, who were once homeless and unemployed, are now able to survive — even when new technology replaces a job — and are provided dignity when they’re otherwise forgotten.

But whether it’s universal basic income or something else, we must protect the 3 million people who will be displaced by changing technology. And we need to do it soon.

Just last week, the U.S. House passed the “SELF-DRIVE act,” which will allow car manufacturers to test as many as 100,000 self-driving cars on public roads. Could that translate to 100,000 transportation jobs in the near future?

Automation is taking over at an alarming rate, and we are witnessing the implications of it in real-time. It’s expensive; it’s different; but hopefully it’s worth it.

Protecting other people may mean higher taxes for some. But protecting other people also means we all believe in the same basic truth: humans are entitled to at least a basic standard of living.

At a school of innovation, I hope we will welcome automation, while still providing social support for those who have the most to lose. And I hope we will forever share the common idea that we must innovate toward a better future for everyone, even for those who can’t afford it.

About the Author

Matthew Cunningham

Student, athlete, writer, political nerd, and patriarchy smasher