Shove Over Sonny, Robots Will Take Over Taxis First

Autonomous vehicles are expected to create a world in which pedals and steering wheels – and most significantly drivers – are a thing of the past.

While this may introduce a number of conveniences for consumers seeking door-to-door mobility services, it also poses a potential problem for those whose livelihood depends on the need for human drivers. Hoping to gain new insights into how these jobs might be affected in the near future, the American Center for Mobility commissioned a report from Michigan State University, with additional support from Texas A&M Transportation Institute.

“We were really interested in trying to understand the range of the potential impacts, both positive and negative, across several different segments of the workforce,” said Shelia Cotten, MSU Foundation professor at Michigan State University, who led the research. “We conducted a series of focus groups – one in Michigan, one in Texas and one in California – and conducted a series of interviews with people across the country. All of these were with experts, whether they were in an industry particularly affected or could be affected in one way or another by autonomous vehicles.”

Cotten’s research focused on changes that could occur over the next 10 years. Her team learned that AV adoption is going to be relatively low for at least the next few years and may not pick up until year seven (2025) or later. This applies to all forms of AVs, whether for passenger cars or massive trucks. When adoption increases, however, taxi drivers are the ones that are expected to be hit the hardest – not truck drivers.

“It’s about the level of service and the things that are being carried and the technology in the vehicles themselves,” said Cotten. “It’s not saying that people are less important than a million dollars in equipment but the participants in our study said that, much of the time, people don’t even want to interact with their taxi drivers – they just want to get to their destination.”

With such a low level of interaction and engagement with passengers, taxi drivers are not required to perform more than the basic service of getting passengers from point A to point B. Truck drivers, on the other hand, are given a number of responsibilities, including logistics. They must also ensure that the freight arrives safely. Those jobs won’t end with the arrival of self-driving trucks, so Cotten expects a driver’s role to gradually transition to more of a technology operator. She said that in addition to freight management duties, a human occupant could also intervene and reset the vehicle’s complex AV systems if it malfunctions.

“It’s not going to be enough to have a remote monitor of that vehicle,” Cotten added. “Companies are still going to want to make sure there’s somebody in that vehicle who can ensure the safety of what’s being transported.”

Where the jobs are headed

Study participants also suggested that, as driverless technology evolves, there would be the need for significant vehicle monitoring to help ensure a higher level of safety. “It could be as low as one monitor for 200 vehicles,” said Cotten. “Whether those numbers will change has yet to be determined. Much of it we don’t know at this point because there’s such small pockets of autonomous vehicles that are being employed around the US.”

Vehicle monitoring is one potential avenue for drivers whose jobs have been displaced by AVs. However, Cotten said it’s not always clear to job seekers where they could move or the skills they might need to attain for a career transition. Vehicle monitoring, for example, might not require a high level of technical skills, but that doesn’t mean the average truck or taxi driver will be aware of that.

“Historically, one of the things that’s been appealing about trucking is the level of independence,” said Cotten. “You’re on your own, riding the road. Will those individuals be interested or willing to transition to different types of positions? Will they be interested in gaining new skills critically related to the technology in the vehicle that can enable them to stay in the vehicles? I think those types of areas we really need to study and better understand as the AV dissemination becomes greater.”

Separately, Cotten is also researching how older individuals feel about the use of emerging technologies, including autonomous vehicles and their perceptions of the risks and benefits. The study (which surveyed 1,200 Americans age 65 and older) is not yet complete but Cotten was willing to share one interesting finding.

“Only 19% reported being willing to use autonomous vehicles,” she said. “They do perceive some significant risk associated with it. They think there are opportunities to enhance mobility for them. However, they’re worried about cost, they’re worried about the tech itself, the trustworthiness of it and the safety issues associated with it, so there are significant concerns.”


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