Driverless future does not have to mean end of the road for workers

Fears of mass unemployment in haulage and taxi industries are ungrounded, says one of America’s top businesswomen.

When visions of a future of electric, driverless vehicles are conjured up, they can often be presented as a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, towns and cities will become safe, pollution-free and stress-free travel zones for their inhabitants.

On the other hand, what will happen to the millions of people worldwide currently employed in the trucking, taxi and other transport sectors when robots and machines are doing their jobs — for free, with no breaks, or pay?!

It is a scary prospect for many. Not quite the Armageddon of robots terminating humans and taking over the planet, more a case of highly intelligent machines taking our jobs...

However, one of the world’s leading businesswomen has moved to allay fears of what has been termed a jobs ‘robocalypse’ once driverless vehicles become the norm.

Cathy Engelbert, CEO at one of the largest accounting and consulting firms in the world, Deloitte, used a keynote speech last month to assess the impact of the transport revolution.

“When the media cites professions that may decline because of automation, some of the most common are jobs involving the movement of people and goods — trucking, taxis, ride-sharing, and the like,” she said.

“It often makes for good headlines and everyone ‘gets it’ quickly. But the outlook is way more complicated, nuanced, and not necessarily as dire as portrayed.”

Ms Engelbert, who was hailed for cracking the ‘glass ceiling’ when she became the first female CEO of a ‘Big Four’ accounting firm in 2015, said driverless vehicles may actually lead to an increased market for ‘human’ jobs.

“In general, there will likely be an expanding market around mobility management services that could offer incremental job growth,” she said.

“There will be new businesses that will digitally enable the planning and consumption of passenger and goods movement to be more efficient, enjoyable, productive, safer, cleaner, and cheaper. That could mean everything from maintaining vehicle fleets to remote monitoring.”

Ms Engelbert gave one example of how extra employment could be created.

“Consider one possible future that could occur soon, where autonomous trucks travel highways with a human ‘monitor’ in the cab who can assist with particularly challenging driving like navigating city centres and ensure goods are delivered safely,” she said.

“The jobs that remain could be less fatiguing and require shorter stints away from home — because the truck can operate almost constantly.

“Much depends, of course, on how both technology and regulation evolve, but we may find that there is a soft landing, as the current generation of truckers ages out and self-driving systems mature and become more widely adopted.”

Ms Engelbert said current business forecasts suggest shared autonomous vehicle fleets will begin being introduced in 2020 and admitted this could lead to a squeeze on the jobs market in the sector by the mid-2020s.

She added: “As business leaders who work with scores of senior leaders across the private and public sectors, the topic of automation and its implications for workers is inescapable — and often anxiety-inducing.

“There is a need to confront the issues head- on. Putting our heads in the sand won’t stop the inexorable advancement of technology. So, an approach grounded in facts rather than sensationalism is critical.

“Yes, ride-share drivers in urban areas are likely to see job changes and job pressures. Long-haul truckers, too, although likely later and more slowly.”

But she added that a driverless future “means appreciating that new, potentially higher-value jobs are also likely to emerge, and that there can be society-wide benefits to these changes”.

In a nod to Henry Ford’s famous factory production line revolution a century ago, Ms Engelbert said: “Throughout history, automation has often helped increase labour productivity and focused workers on the higher value-added elements of work.

“Just think how factory automation has reduced the back-breaking parts of many jobs and shifted the emphasis toward higher-skilled machine operating.

“We ultimately need to help today’s workers — drivers, factory workers, and beyond — discover where demand for skills will be in five to 10 years and help them gain the necessary expertise and experience to do them well.”

Ms Engelbert’s views chime in with those of another member of the ‘Big Four’, PricewaterhouseCoopers, which argues that Artificial Intelligence (AI) will create many more jobs than it will destroy