The Social Consequences of Driverless Cars


Driverless cars appear to be on the Horizon. The economist predicts that “by the 2020s some cars that drive themselves most or all of the time could well be in volume production.”

Lib Dem blogger Mark Pack argues this will have big consequences for public policy

the speed with which driverless cars are advancing means the transport world by the time a big project like Crossrail2 or HS2 is completed is likely to be very different.

Already driverless busses look set to make a serious debut in the UK by 2015, thanks to the Milton Keynes initiative.

They may therefore start appearing as a regular feature on those city’s roads before the next set of general election manifestos for the main parties even go to print.

Given the speed of their development on the one hand and the long development times for big transport projects on the other, I fear not just the party but those interested in transport more widely are trying to shape a future which, by the time it arrives, will be quite different from the one they are planning for.


Some of the benefits like to accrue from this are brilliant – but do not require policy changes. A further improvement in road safety is likely for, as we have seen in other areas where automated machinery replaces humans in repetitive tasks, computers are more reliable, less sleepy and never drunk. Brilliant news for humanity (road deaths killed more people than genocides during the twentieth century after all), a useful saving for the NHS but not something which much knock-on policy impacts.

Other changes are likely to be more troubling. Think what a significant part of the local economy of some ethnic minority communities in some areas is provided by the minicab trade, for example. As mechanisation (driverless cars) drives out low-skilled workers (minicab drivers) there is no guarantee that the economic transition for those most affected will be smooth or quickly. The long-run benefits to us all may be immense, but as previous such mechanisations have shown, the short-run pain for some can be great.

I’d suggest that these costs may be more lasting. New jobs will indeed be created to replace the old ones. But they will not be the same as the old jobs. As this article from Slate explains improvements in technology have meant more opportunities for skilled workers and fewer for everyone, and this has meant an increase in inequality.

Our story begins in the 1950s, at the dawn of the computer age, when homo sapiens first began to worry that automation would bring about mass unemployment. Economic theory dating back to the 19th century said this couldn’t happen, because the number of jobs isn’t fixed; a new machine might eliminate jobs in one part of the economy, but it would also create jobs in another part. For example, someone had to be employed to make these new machines. But as the economists Frank Levy of MIT and Richard J. Murnane of Harvard have noted, computers represented an entirely different sort of new machine. Previously, technology had performed physical tasks. (Think of John Henry‘s nemesis, the steam-powered hammer.) Computers were designed to perform cognitive tasks. (Think of Garry * Kasparov’s nemesis, IBM’s Deep Blue.) Theoretically, there was no limit to the kinds of work computers might eventually perform. In 1964 several eminent Americans, including past and future Nobel laureates Linus Pauling and Gunnar Myrdal, wrote President Lyndon Johnson to warn him about “a system of almost unlimited productive capacity which requires progressively less human labor.”

Such a dystopia may yet one day emerge. But thus far traditional economic theory is holding up reasonably well. Computers are eliminating jobs, but they’re also creating jobs. The trouble, Levy and Murnane argue, is that the kinds of jobs computers tend to eliminate are those that require some thinking but not a lot—precisely the niche previously occupied by moderately skilled middle-class laborers.

Consider the sad tale of the bank teller. When is the last time you saw one? In the 1970s, the number of bank tellers grew by more than 85 percent. It was one of the nation’s fastest-growing occupations, and it required only a high school degree. In 1970, bank tellers averaged about $90 a week, which in 2010 dollars translates into an annual wage of about $26,000. But over the last 30 years, people pretty much stopped ever stepping into the lobby of their bank; instead, they started using the automatic teller machine outside and eventually learned to manage their accounts from their personal computers or mobile phones.

Today, the job category “bank teller” is one of the nation’s slowest-growing occupations. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a paltry 6 percent growth rate during the next decade. The job now pays slightly less than it did in 1970, averaging about $25,000 a year.

As this story plays out in similar occupations—cashiers, typists, welders, farmers, appliance repairmen (this last already so obsolete that no one bothers to substitute a plausible ungendered noun)—the moderately skilled workforce is hollowing out.

Because of this, the area of policy where driverless cars may demand the biggest change might be education. A further contraction in semi-skilled jobs as work driving taxis, lorries and the like disappears will make it even less sustainable for our education system to continue producing a long tail of functionally illiterate school leavers.


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