Warning signs on the road ahead: Driverless taxis and their consequences
By CALLUM DOHERTY
The last decade has seen increased strides in automation, from self-service checkouts to taxis you can call with just a tap of your phone. Now, whilst many of the world's workers find themselves in lockdown, Shanghai is the first city to test out the newest advancement in what machines can do for us- “robotaxis”. AutoX, a China-based tech company, is the first of several driverless car startups to test out their product, a car with driverless software which, much like an Uber, can be summoned via mobile phone by customers.
An observation readers may want to explore further is how AutoX has chosen to crack the Chinese market ahead of the US. Chinese citizens are increasingly making clear the power of their disposable income; market influence is moving across the Pacific not only in terms of production, but in terms of consumption now as well. This should not be surprising; China is by default the world’s largest market for pretty much anything right now, and McKinsey forecasts driverless cars to account for as much as 66% of the kilometres travelled by passengers in 2040, generating a market revenue of over a trillion dollars. Large scale distribution of these machines could happen as soon as 2023.
This forecast obviously takes something for granted- that consumers will get on board with this technology, a software that will take away the kind of agency people have had over their ability to travel for over a
century. The car is often held up as a symbol of freedom and individualism- earn enough to buy one, and the roads of the world open up to you. Of course, with a driverless car this is still the case- it's just not you behind the wheel. Will people get on board with this new system? Perhaps a better question to ask is why wouldn’t they? We as a people have accepted huge changes in our relationship with our tech in the new millennium. Google and Facebook harvest our data and sell it to advertisers, credit cards are making cash redundant, and the government can track our online activity. We accept this, and the lost jobs that have already fallen to automation, because it is easy to accept- the consequences are distant and the benefits are instantaneous. Why should future generations bother wasting time on a driving licence if their car drives itself, no matter if we think it makes us overdependent on technology? I don’t worry about my dependence on the washing machine. Instead it is likely that people will find this transition relatively easy. There will be accidents as the tech develops, tabloids will inevitably print scare stories, but ultimately people will slip into this new reality- not so much because they say yes to it, but because they don't say no.
We should welcome the arrival of technology that makes everybody’s lives easier. The real problem lies in the fate of people currently doing jobs that are about to be automated away from them. This is particularly relevant in the context of countries like the UK and US, where the service industry, not manufacturing, is the biggest employer. Taxi driving is a disproportionately urban profession- as of 2017 in the UK, 39% of taxis and private-hire vehicles were located in London. Over 350,000 people held a license to drive a taxi. The impact gets even more significant if you look at plans to automate larger vehicles. As of 2019, 3.5 million people in the US are truck drivers, managed by 711,000 businesses and self-employed workers. It’s a decently paid job that can earn a person up to $50,000 and can be a lifeline to the economy of small towns. What’s going to replace that? Coding? Seriously?
There will be labour disputes. There will inevitably be a massive loss of jobs worldwide. Automation in many more aspects of life beyond taxis is likely to keep on coming. This would be fine in countries where jobs are bountiful, and the safety net is capable of helping people back on their feet. This is not the case, at least, in the UK- in our current economy the only long-term guarantee of life’s necessities is a job paying above the living wage- how are we going to retrain every truck and taxi driver, many of whom are middle-aged, to ensure them these opportunities? Is the answer regulation of this new industry? Are we going to look to those who will financially benefit from this new innovation, and ask what they will give in compensation for the jobs that will be lost? Are we going to have to rethink how the wealth of nations is accessed by those at the bottom of the ladder? Do national governments have the will to pursue any of these paths? Chance would be a fine thing.