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A public policy blog from AEI
Far too much of the chatter about jobs and technology is built around static analysis. Robot workers replace human workers. Assuming much smarter machines — such as self-driving vehicles — here comes mass technological unemployment.
But the effect of tech on labor markets is dynamic, not static. Automation may increase demand for goods and services, and thus the jobs producing them, by allowing their production to be performed more cheaply. This is the story of ATMs and teller jobs, for instance. (Just as importantly, tech progress can create new tasks and more employment opportunities.) And it also might be the story of driverless trucks, according to Uber (thanks to Caleb Watney for the Twitter pointer):
In our baseline projections without self-driving trucks, the number of trucking jobs nationwide increased 766,000 by 2028. When we add self-driving trucks into the scenario above, truck driving jobs increase even more, with many long haul jobs shifting to local haul to support growing freight volume moving in and out of transfer hubs.
Why? The deployment of self-driving trucks improves efficiency on long haul routes, lowering the overall cost of trucking and reducing the total cost of the goods being shipped. When goods are cheaper, consumers buy more of them. And when consumers buy more, more new goods need to be shipped than before, which drives truck freight volume up. In this scenario, when 1 million self-driving trucks are operating on highways, we would expect to see close to 1 million jobs shift from long haul to local haul, plus about 400,000 new truck driving jobs will be needed to keep up with the higher demand.
Every self-driving truck will need partners to cover local routes and bring loads to and from transfer hubs. Growth for self-driving trucks will therefore mean growth for truck drivers, on top of all the things we move getting cheaper and arriving faster. Additionally, those local haul truckers would be picking up and dropping loaded trailers, meaning big reductions in wait times at loading docks. And for drivers who prefer long haul, there will still be many routes across the country for years to come.
Obviously it is in Uber’s self interest to put as positive a spin as possible on the job impact of autonomous vehicles given how critical the technology is to the company’s long-term growth plans. But the economic framing here seems reasonable, and offers a perspective too often ignored in analysis about “the rise of the robots.”
But, you might ask, doesn’t this analysis just ignore the inevitable? As machines can do more and more, eventually might the number of jobs flatten, decline, and then disappear? Well, as technology analyst Benedict Evans has explained, the transition might take 20 or 30 years. By that time “effectively all current truck drivers will have quit anyway — you won’t replace them, but you won’t necessarily put anyone directly out of work,” Evans says. Already, he added, the average trucker is 49 years old, and truckers are leaving the industry faster than they can be replaced.
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