Jobless in the self-driving economy

Uber’s self-driving cars will hit the road this month, earlier than anticipated. That’s an exciting surprise…unless of course you’re a driver. They won’t be the only ones affected, though. The consequences of robot-induced unemployment could eventually ripple through the rest of the economy.

What will happen to Uber’s 1 million drivers? And the 3.5 million truck drivers in the US? And the countless millions of delivery, bus, taxi, and other drivers around the world?

These jobs won’t disappear overnight. It could take 20 years. But if we don’t plan for this labor shift, it could cause mass hardship for some even while delivering mass convenience to others.


Self-driving cars are undoubtedly the future. They’ll be significantly safer and more relaxing. They’ll reduce traffic and carbon emissions. And they could free up productive time for knowledge workers that used to be spent stuck behind the wheel.

They’ll also be a lot cheaper than paying a person to pilot the vehicle.

Bloomberg writes, “Trips will be free for the time being, rather than the standard local rate of $1.30 per mile. In the long run, [Uber CEO Travis] Kalanick says, prices will fall so low that the per-mile cost of travel, even for long trips in rural areas, will be cheaper in a driverless Uber than in a private car.” Oh, and Uber just announced it has acquired a self-driving truck company.

Dropped Off

The problem is driving constitutes one of the core forms of low-skilled labor alongside cashiers and fast-food prep. The robots are coming for all of them. Some argue that technology will create new jobs for these people. Though while it may create new jobs, they likely won’t be attainable by those losing their low-skilled ones.

Think of it this way. When cars were invented, they threatened the low-skilled laborers that used to bring people and objects around: horses. As laid out by this fantastic Humans Need Not Apply video, the idea that “better technology will create more better jobs for horses” immediately seems ludicrous. Replacing “horses” with “humans” in that sentence shouldn’t inspire much more optimism.

What this shift to autonomy will do to the economy is roll the earnings of the replaced low-skilled laborers up to the owners and designers of the self-driving fleets, cookdroids, and cashierbots. It’s a Marxist nightmare.

Software has already been causing a similar effect, but the proliferation of autonomous robots will allow this revolution to grow beyond bits and invade the realm of atoms.

That’s why the next President needs to start preparing us now, though hopefully without impeding the speed of innovation. Education, job training, and placement services will be essential. Hell, just recognizing and talking about the problem will be a good start.

Long-term, we’ll need to take a long, hard look at how capitalism works in an era where technology replaces jobs faster than it creates them. Must everyone have a full-time role? Can we redistribute wealth from the top so the bottom doesn’t starve without devolving into inefficiency and stagnation? How would that impact the psyches of citizens raised to define their own value by how much bread they earn, not how much they receive?

Those are complicated questions without definitive answers. We’ll need plenty of time to figure them out. But today Uber made it clear the future’s ETA is a lot sooner than we expected.