Will automated trucks be a job killer? – Yes, they will.
“Driverless trucks are inevitable. Millions of jobs could be affected. It’s not just about the truck drivers. It’s about everyone,” argues blogger and basic income advocate Scott Santens.
A group of very capable people from companies like Facebook, Apple, and Tesla recently formed a new company with the intent to convert existing commercial trucks driven by humans into safer trucks that don’t need drivers. The company’s name is Otto and the product they intend to sell is inevitable. It’s inevitable for the same reason it represents a danger. Where the cost of human labor is a barrier to much higher profits, and the technology exists to reduce or even entirely eliminate that labor, labor will be removed from that equation, especially when that labor is currently involved in 438,000 crashes a year, and is a Teamster.
But what does this new technology mean for America as a whole, and not just the companies looking to increase their bottom lines?
It was during a road trip last year that really got me thinking about the effects of this impending arrival of self-driving technology on the American economy, especially driverless trucks. The growing anguish of an already suffering rural America was practically palpable from the driver’s seat as I passed town after economically depressed town. I felt like I was driving through a body where the arteries were freeways, blood cells were 18-wheelers, and oxygen is money.
In such a metaphor, what happens to the body once there are fewer blood cells and they no longer stop between organs, to offload oxygen where needed for the survival of all cells and therefore the body as a whole?
Truck driving – the most common job in many states
That is the crux of the problem facing the United States. Our interstate highway system is our circulatory system. It’s the way we get our goods to market, but it’s also the way money makes its way to many businesses to be transformed into paychecks and therefore spending in local economies, all over the country, from the biggest cities to the smallest towns. Combine this with the somewhat inconvenient truth that after decades of American deindustrialization and technological advancement, the most common kind of paid work in each state has shifted from farmers, secretaries, and machine operators, to truck drivers, and where the job market is currently bifurcating into one of low-paid service sector work and high-paid technology sector work and... Houston, we have a problem.
As of 2014, the most common job in 29 states - well over half of the country - is truck driver. Directly counted, that is 3.5 million jobs according to the American Trucker Association. There are an additional 5.2 million jobs within the trucking industry (think secretaries and warehouse workers) that could also be affected in varying ways as their industry is disrupted. It’s easy to see these truck driving-related jobs and stop there, but we can’t. Truck driving is deeply rooted and so we must go deeper.
We must follow the money
When a truck driver stops in a small town to eat, the money in his pocket ends up in the pocket of the waitress who served him and the cook who prepared his meal. That money then circulates within that small town. The waitress spends it on groceries which ends up being the paychecks of a cashier and a stock boy. The cook spends it on a night out which ends up being the paychecks of a local musician and a bartender. The entire town is affected.
However, we can go even deeper still. Look for example at the half a million or so crashes per year that trucks are involved in. We of course want to reduce that number, but what happens when we do once autonomous trucks make for safer roads? That means fewer employed insurance agents. It means fewer auto body shops. It could even mean less demand for paramedics and nurses. Down and down the rabbit hole we go as we consider just how rooted in our economy is the driving of trucks by humans from point A to point B. It’s not just about the truck drivers. It’s about everyone.
Re-employing millions of people? Impossible
When we rip something out by the roots, there is a big hole that must be filled with something equally big. To think we can fill the approaching hole created by the decimation of jobs we face by re-employing millions of newly unemployed truck drivers, short order cooks, waitresses, cashiers, and all the rest, as software engineers and coders is folly. The nature of technology is doing more with less, and so by their very nature, fewer tech jobs are needed than the jobs they replace.
Therefore the question we must all face in the coming decade of disruption is what happens to the truck drivers? Self-driving trucks makes that question literal, but it’s also metaphorical. What happens to all those whose work is no longer required thanks to machines offering the better choice? Even assuming they are re-employed as they have been for decades in mostly lower-wage work, what happens when tens of millions of people have smaller paychecks in a consumer economy? What happens to the economic body when there’s less oxygen?
In a world where technology is fundamentally altering the way our economic circulatory system works, we must acknowledge the need to disconnect income/oxygen from jobs, so that all cells get oxygen no matter what. In an America with self-driving trucks, the need for an unconditional basic income - where every citizen gets an equal salary for nothing but citizenship - needs to finally be acknowledged. The lifeblood of an economy is the transport of money from hand to hand, exchange by exchange, and if we’ve automated transport so that money no longer reaches many of those hands, it’s simply time to stop requiring human labor to breathe.
- Driverless trucks are inevitable since they offer substantial savings for fleet owners and higher road safety.
- 3.5 million people work as truck drivers in the USA. Additionally, there are millions of jobs who depend on the trucking business, e.g. in the hospitality or insurance industry.
- Replacing truck drivers with automation will have devastating effects on the job market – especially in small town economies.
- It is folly to believe that millions of people who will lose their job can be re-employed.
- In a world where automation is fundamentally altering the economic system, an unconditional basic income will become inevitable.
About our author:
Scott Santens has a crowdfunded monthly basic income and has been a moderator of the basic income community on Reddit since 2013. As a writer and blogger, his pieces advocating the idea have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Boston Globe, and Politico. As a public speaker, he has presented at the first World Summit on Technological Unemployment and participated as a panelist at the Brookings Institute about the impact of technology on the workforce.
He is an advisor to the Universal Income Project, a founding committee member of the nonprofit D.C.-based organization Basic Income Action, a coordinating committee member of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network, and founder of the BIG Patreon Creator Pledge. He holds a B.S. in psychology and his home is in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Who has the better arguments? What do you think? Will truck automation be a job killer? Share your thoughts with the community!