Tuesday, October 12, 2010

3.6 Million Jobs at Risk!

Strange to say, that is not the headline of this piece in the New York Times.  Instead it's titled "Google Cars Drive Themselves, in Traffic", and starts out like this:
Anyone driving the twists of Highway 1 between San Francisco and Los Angeles recently may have glimpsed a Toyota Prius with a curious funnel-like cylinder on the roof. Harder to notice was that the person at the wheel was not actually driving.

The car is a project of Google, which has been working in secret but in plain view on vehicles that can drive themselves, using artificial-intelligence software that can sense anything near the car and mimic the decisions made by a human driver.

With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.
The article does extensively discuss the possible benefits of this technological advance:
Robot drivers react faster than humans, have 360-degree perception and do not get distracted, sleepy or intoxicated, the engineers argue. They speak in terms of lives saved and injuries avoided — more than 37,000 people died in car accidents in the United States in 2008. The engineers say the technology could double the capacity of roads by allowing cars to drive more safely while closer together. Because the robot cars would eventually be less likely to crash, they could be built lighter, reducing fuel consumption. But of course, to be truly safer, the cars must be far more reliable than, say, today’s personal computers, which crash on occasion and are frequently infected.
The car is a project of Professor Sebastian Thrun:
The project is the brainchild of Sebastian Thrun, the 43-year-old director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, a Google engineer and the co-inventor of the Street View mapping service.

In 2005, he led a team of Stanford students and faculty members in designing the Stanley robot car, winning the second Grand Challenge of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a $2 million Pentagon prize for driving autonomously over 132 miles in the desert.

Besides the team of 15 engineers working on the current project, Google hired more than a dozen people, each with a spotless driving record, to sit in the driver’s seat, paying $15 an hour or more. Google is using six Priuses and an Audi TT in the project.

The Google researchers said the company did not yet have a clear plan to create a business from the experiments. Dr. Thrun is known as a passionate promoter of the potential to use robotic vehicles to make highways safer and lower the nation’s energy costs. It is a commitment shared by Larry Page, Google’s co-founder, according to several people familiar with the project.
Ever since the result of the second DARPA grand challenge, I have had little doubt this is coming, and that, therefore, the days of professional drivers were numbered.  Obviously, the rate of uptake of this technology commercially is uncertain, but since it offers powerful costs savings, I have no doubt it will be deployed once the technology is robust enough.  I don't doubt Prof Thrun's contention that this will save energy.  Furthermore, there are large classes of drivers who will be glad of it: commuting to work in traffic is a big drag - why not let the car do it and read a book, make a call, or watch a movie?  Professional sales people, real estate agents, etc, will be very glad of the chance to work full time while the car drives itself.

Still, there is a big downside here.  If we go to the BLS Occupational Employment Statistics, and get the "National Cross-Industry Estimates", we find that, out of a total of just over 130 million jobs, we have the following that are clearly professional drivers:

That probably understates the situation a bit - there are probably some agricultural laborers who mainly drive, managers and dispatchers of the drivers above, etc.  Still, I'm sure this is close.  Here is the same thing graphically, and expressed as a percentage of the total workforce in the same survey:

All told, we are talking about 2 1/2% of the workforce at risk because of this particular technological development.

Traditionally, the story would be that they would be taken up in other occupations after a while.  However, I think that's a very difficult case to make in contemporary America.  Driving is fairly unskilled work - anyone with a functioning human body can learn to do it in a fairly short time and the vast bulk of adults already know enough to drive a car, and you don't need any college courses to drive a truck.  So then we recall that the employment/population ratio for uneducated American men has been plummeting since the second world war, and is now around 50%:

So demand for unskilled uneducated labor is already extremely weak, and you have to figure that throwing another 3.6 million drivers into the mix has got to hurt that ratio quite a bit more.

And that's not even to get into the increased potential for city-crippler car worms.  That gets a lot easier if all of these things are connected to the Internet.


Unknown said...

Maybe your memory of riding a school-bus is a bit hazy, but I actually think most of those jobs are not at risk. Passanger drivers don't just drive.

Ambulance drivers are additional sets of hands, so are fire-engine drivers. Cab / limo drivers open doors, give suggestions, help you find that place that is "somewhere around xyz", help you with bags and packages when you need an extra set of hands as well as act as a general information source. Most limo drivers will be glad to run a few errands for you--limo drivers and personal chauffeurs are more like a valet.

Then there's bus drivers who are in charge of keeping order on the bus--whether it be a school or public transit bus. They help people with disabilities if necessary and are usually willing to tell you what stop you are looking for when you are kind-of lost.

Delivery service men help you lift things, make change, ring your doorbell, load/unload etc.

So yeah, driving is a relatively low-skilled job, but I think few drivers are purely drivers. Many of them will doubtlessly find themselves with new duties to use up the attention they spent driving before, but I sincerely doubt success in this project would affect a lot of jobs. PT bus drivers could easily be given a computer terminal and tasked with reporting transit/obstacle/accident/road-conditions details for smart maps. Bus drivers would keep a better watch on children, mailmen and delivery men could spend their time sorting things to deliver with greater expediency, etc etc.

really cool project, though!

KLR said...

Apart from all of Guillermo's excellent points, my initial impression was that this would have a considerable potential impact on relieving traffic congestion. Wiki refs a Texas Transportation Institute study that says 5.7 billion U.S. gallons were lost due to traffic congestion in 2007. This works out to 371.8 kb/d, which would be 1.9% of the 19,278,000 barrels per day we used in July 2010, or 4% of the finished motor gasoline. That would be a substantial savings of oil; ideally driving would be that much safer, too.

I don't see this being widely adopted after years of trials, though, perhaps with Automated Only lanes for a spell. Another approach would be to have someone else do your driving for you, which sounds absurd but remember that we have people earning $3/day to break captchas.

Greg said...

Leaving aside Guillermo's objections, most of which I'll answer shortly, there are much more powerful reasons why we won't see any shift in the USA for decades.

First, social attitudes to vehicles, driving, and their relationship to American ideas of autonomy being bound up in mobility. It's going to take a long time before the more libertarian elements of society accept being a stagecoach passenger rather than a cowboy in their personal mythology. More risk-averse people (the groups overlap) will be extremely nervous about the idea of 100 tons of tractor-trailer on the highway with no-one controlling it, so it will be a long, long time before legislation is passed permitting driverless vehicles. (It's a commonplace that 747s and later can land themselves, and the pilots are just there for show; for every Kippenberger there are fifty crashes due to pilot error. But we still insist on having pilots.)

Second, the American penchant for litigation at all scales from the interpersonal to the international will tremendously delay a change such as this. I'd imagine it will happen in all the rest of the world before the USA.

Now Guillermo's objections: most of them focus on people transport, not goods transport. Stuart's chart shows that long-distance haulage (42% of employment) is where the big effects would be felt, so the objections are about minor aspects. Second, complementary changes are already happening. Rather than ask for directions, people increasingly use the map application on their cell-phones. Surveillance cameras are used to keep order. Eliminating drivers makes it possible to replace 40-passenger school buses with smaler ones or individual taxis, so no problem of order or of assistance will arise. Delivery is more problematic in the general case, but many of these vehicles work between loading bays (automated forkhoists) most of the time, and could take along a passenger on the few trips where this is necessary. Yes, ambulance drivers and fire-truck drivers are paramedics and firemen, but look at the numbers: trivial. I don't think these points are serious difficulties.

Finally, I had to chuckle at the idea that the daily commute would become an opportunity to read books or watch movies. Don't you mean, make calls to arrange meetings - or videoconference from the car, provide LinkedIn references and update your profile, fill in your expense report, and work on that PowerPoint presentation? It's not just sales people who will (be forced to) treat this as extra work time.

Greg said...

Stuart: you and some readers may be interested in this item at Vox:
The Netherlands of 2040.

kjmclark said...

I'll second Greg's point; long-haul trucking is the most logical starting point on roads. Any vehicle being driven in the middle of the night to haul freight is an obvious candidate.

But one that Stuart didn't mention is intriguing too: farm tractors. We already have GPS-directed tractors. Why not combine that with automated driving? There's no risk of crashing into another vehicle out in the fields. It seems like it would be a lot less technically challenging as well.

Of course, you could also go for mining operations. Why do we need human drivers at oilsands operations? Why send humans down in mines when you could send remotely controlled machines or automated-driving machines into the mines?

Trains? Large ships?

And in all of these cases, the capital cost of the equipment is high enough to help cover the cost of the automation. It makes much more sense to put in a $20k automated driving system in a $100k tractor than in a $20k car.