Looking at the human side of autonomous vehicles

07 Jul

Today I’m focused on the impact of autonomous vehicles on professional drivers rather than consumers. This was spurred by the latest entrant in the autonomous vehicle field: Mercedes, who released a video and information on their prototype Future Truck 2025.

My first reaction was skepticism, not at the technological issues but at the idea that a company would pay a driver to sit there doing his paperwork and ordering his next meal. I’m not alone. When this topic came up on Slashdot, many of the comments — including some from working truck drivers — focused on the potential human cost. One comment cited data from that estimates there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US: if accurate, that’s more than 1% of the population or about 2.5% of all employed Americans (from data I can glean from the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Another comment says,

Yes, autonomous drivers are a wonderful invention but no one is focusing on the social changes that must take place. We are eliminating employment at an ever increasing pace. If we fail to make provisions for keeping people above water without regard to whether they work or not we are going to bring down our society into the worst collapse of all times. If we generate poverty we will generate rebellion and chaos. Meanwhile we have people chained to dogmas who are in denial about what is occurring.

That connects closely to my recent post on the human cost of thinking of robots as replacement rather than augmentation. Mercedes doesn’t see the driver as expendable, but after the capital costs of switching to autonomous trucks, will companies be willing to pay a living wage for ride-along “transport managers”? The technology would have to advance to the point where a human would never be called upon for reflex responses — impossible if he is taking care of other tasks or simply not watching the road with the attention of a driver — yet would be a valuable partner with the machine. Google’s tests with autonomous cars have shown that once people grow accustomed to the car doing the driving, they aren’t ready to take control in case of an equipment failure; transport managers would need to be cut from different cloth. Could this increase efficiency? Would late night trucking with emptier roads and cooler asphalt be easier? How could the “transport manager” make productive use of his time when his intervention isn’t required for most of a long haul trip?

People are thinking more about autonomous vehicles, whether as creators, consumers, or competitors. One of the applications for which driverless cars could be brilliant is as a taxi service, an industry that is already in upheaval because of app-based services like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar. (The Washington Post has a fascinating article about the economics of taxi medallions in Chicago, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.) Taxi drivers in the US are not like London cabbies with the Knowledge; I rarely use cabs but more often than not in recent years, I’ve had to provide detailed directions to my destination and then my driver talked loudly with friends or family on his Bluetooth headset, usually in a language other than English. Less frequently, I’ve had nice conversations with drivers. Most of the time I would be thrilled to simply get into a vehicle and have it quietly take me to my destination. Perhaps during the current controversy, taxi operators might want to consider the value a professional driver can add and require it from their employees and licensees — not only as a way of differentiating their services from the app-based ones, but also as future-proofing for a time when the competition has no steering wheel at all. It could be an opportunity to take an active role in shaping the future and showing the importance of professional drivers rather than reacting defensively after the change has already happened.

We’ve come a long way from the autonomous car of my childhood, but even then it was seen as a partner, not a replacement.


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Posted by on July 7, 2014 in Culture, In the News, Our Robot Overlords


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