What will happen to drivers run off the road by autonomous vehicles?

Toni Sekinah, research analyst and features editor, DataIQ

In April the UK government announced £109 million of funding will be put into driverless and low-carbon technologies. This commitment to autonomous vehicles was underpinned by the chancellor in the Autumn Budget, when he pledged that autonomous cars will be on our roads by 2021.

Last week on the BBC’s  Today Programme, Chancellor Philip spoke excitedly about autonomous vehicles and the impact they will have on the UK economy. He called it a “fascinating new technology” that is going to revolutionise our lives and the way we work.

Eddie Stobart HGVHammond enthused: “It will happen, I can promise you. It is happening already. Cars are driving around our roads at the moment with a safety attendant on board but with the car driving itself. He then conceded that for some people, “this will be very challenging.” Those people are the near one million people officially employed as road transport drivers in the UK. They equate to almost 3% of the 32 million people in employment in this country.  Hammond elaborated: “The challenge for us is making sure that the people in the UK who drive for a living, over the next 10, 20 years or so, as driverless vehicles come in, are able to retrain and re-skill so they can take up the many, many new jobs that this economy will be throwing up.”

No doubt many of these many, many new jobs will be in the data sector. How will today’s drivers be able to fill these roles? No word on this issue. The US is further along the road to autonomous vehicles than we are. Across the pond, the same proportion of the workforce rely on driving for a living as in the UK at 3%. Stateside it is estimated that between four and five million jobs could be lost over the next 10 to 20 years. Is there anything we could learn about how to soften the blow of job losses that driverless cars could bring about?

In 2016 the White House published a report that said the new opportunities offered by autonomous vehicle will take some time to materialise and that the federal government will have to step in. This would be to help provide services like “job search assistance, education, training and apprenticeships to build and certify new skills, and wage insurance.” This would be to ensure that drivers could enter new jobs and make comparable wages. What type of new jobs?

A report by the Center for Global Policy Solutions on autonomous vehicles and the future of work, recommended that policies be implemented to reduce the negative impact of job losses such as unemployment insurance, job training, a basic income programme and healthcare subsidies. This would be to help to tide over the laid-off drivers whilst they retrain, upskill and find new employment. What kind of new employment?

Laurence Katz, a labour economist at Harvard suggested public sector jobs should be created for redundant drivers as well as adjustment assistance which could be paid for by the big companies that benefit the most from driverless vehicles via a special tax. Will there be as many public sector jobs as there will be jobs in ICT? The European Union expects a shortfall in this sector of 800,000 by 2020.

There are calls from some, including Sir Richard Branson, for the introduction of a universal basic income, which would be paid to all citizens regardless of employment status. It would ensure that those who lose their jobs to automation do not fall into poverty.

While some critical questions are still unanswered, it is a good first step that these conversations are taking place in the US. The subject will have to be broached here as well, soon followed by concrete proposals of how people can transition from sectors where jobs are scarce to where there is a surplus. The enthusiasm that comes with the exciting opportunities offered by autonomous vehicles needs to be coupled with pragmatism for the human drivers who will be forced off the road.

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