Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Transportation Companies Will Quickly Adopt Driverless Cars

Driverless cars seem to be a hot topic right now for a near future development. Technically, the future is now as Google tests its robot cars and finds them pretty safe. There was a quaint comment on Twitter that stated the thousands of tax drivers and truck drivers would be an obstacle to that adoption. That would be a strong statement if the nearly 20 million Americans employed in manufacturing in 1977 had been able to do anything about the massive wave of efficiency improvements, computer automation and mechanization of their jobs over the next thirty five years. Robot cars will be quickly adopted by taxi firms and short haul trucking, but long haul trucking might be a later adoption.

The transportation firms have all the power. Cab drivers are a lower wage crew, they operate in cities that usually have very grid like patterns of roads and synchronized lights (sorry Boston), and they are already valued next to nothing. A robot car does not require a tip, therefore the fares could be raised to secure those expenditures for the firm. Why do you think cab drivers have been replaced in major cities with fresh off the boat immigrants at every turn? It is a low barrier to entry job with few skills needed and personal contact is not necessary. The last white, English speaking cab driver in NYC was John Travolta in "Look Who's Talking" in 1989. Capital and management values labor inputs low in the transportation business. Long haul trucking is a bit different due to owner operators and problems posed by inclement weather in wide open spaces. An unspoken bonus to transportation firms would be a reduction to their liability costs and insurance. Robot cars will secure the labor input into a more securely controlled input for long term planning.

This is not new news, and writers and journalists need to stop thinking this is 1950. Capital always wants more cheap labor, but labor does have value. If labor can be turned into a steady input, metrics can be created to track and respond to product demand better. Let me quote an intelligent political economist,
to see mechanization and automation purely as a problem in comparative cost is greatly to minimize their role - and to pay further for the error in confining economic goals, and economic calculation, to profit maximization. The technostructure, as noted, seeks technical progressiveness for its own sake when this is not in conflict with other goals. More important, it seeks certainty in the supply and price of all the prime requisites of production. Labor is a prime requisite. And a blue collar labor force, especially if subject to the external authority of a union, introduces a major element of uncertainty and danger. Who can tell what wages will have to be paid to get the men? Who can assess the likelihood, the costs and the consequences of a strike?

In contrast mechanization ads to certainty. Machines do not go on strike. Their prices are subject to the stability, which we have seen, is inherent in the contractual relationships between large firms. The capital by which the machinery is provided comes from the internal savings of the firm. Both its supply and cost are thus fully under the control of the firm. More white collar workers and more members of the technostructure will be required with mechanization.
That is not an evil, right wing economist writing in the Reagan '80s about the coming application of computer technology to manufacturing. That is Harvard Professor and left wing titan John Kenneth Galbraith writing in 1967. Making labor a more reliable input is a benefit to capital and planning as well as a boon to management. The entire offshoring and outsourcing movement has destroyed unskilled or semi-skilled labor's earnings but placed greater focus on management. Demands on supply chain management, logistics, vendor selection have all risen. Those are white collar worker and management realms (Galbraith's technostructure). For transportation firms, tthis means less revenue is to be allotted to drivers and more can be secured for managers, dispatchers, administrative employees, executives and capital.

This will happen. Cab drivers are a non-entity as a political force, and truckers did not stop the transportation deregulation of the 1970s. If manufacturing firms can replace tool cutter-grinders with machines and have error rates their fathers never would have dreamed possible, we can replace cab drivers with robots who will not get in accidents, not drive you to the wrong hotel because they do not understand you, not be rude jerks acting like they are doing you a favor and not a job, and most importantly, never get sick, have a kid, leave the firm or demand more pay. This will be an easy sell to Americans who already dislike a majority of the cab drivers in metropolitan areas. In other words, the customer's superior experience aligns with management's perfect pet worker.


Monroe Ficus said...

My Great Uncle who just died was probably the white cabbie in my area, before that, he was the last white dry cleaner as well.

dance...dancetotheradio said...

I think there might be a transition from drivers to remote piloting to driverless.
Particularly for things like garbage trucks and snow clearing equipment.
Also, I see two significant hurdles that need to be overcome.
Reliability in all weather conditions and insurance costs.
Who is culpable when a driverless vehicle causes injury or death?
And what's to prevent someone from hacking the driverless cab you are in and sending you careening into oncoming traffic?

Son of Brock Landers said...

I'm thinking big city cab companies first. Then slow roll out elsewhere. Snow ploughs will be later because that is pretty special. Garbage might be sooner than you think. This will happen and it will start with city cabs.

Chris said...

also, with robots, you can't not get paid. A family members drives cab for a living, and a substantial portion of his total trip are for people who stiff him.
a robot cab can operate on a pay as you go basis, or a pay upfront basis, or just not unlock the door until you pay up basis. Either way you're not getting stiffed.

Take The Red Pill said...

But then how can women make false "rape" charges to get out of paying their fare, if there are not any drivers to make the false charges against in the first place?

Portlander said...

I disagree about cabs and short haul trucking leading the way.

Long-haul can incrementally adopt the solution. Out west UPS and Fedex has triple trailers all over the place. They can create convoys wth one human tractor driver up front and 2 more tractors following him. He can lead the convoy straight down the interstate from one terminal to another. At the terminal humans can get in the "drone" rigs and drive them for the local leg to make the actual delivery.

Getting rid of 2/3 of the guys steering rigs down desolate interstate is a pretty easy and relatively safe incremental approach to cut labor costs. Plus it's useful to have local drivers to sign paperwork and confirm just the right parcels are being unloaded at the destination. Customers also appreciate their driver. It would be easier to replace an OTR driver they never interact with anyway.

Big Bill said...

Unfortunately, we will be stuck with all the out of work Paki, Haitian, and Jamaican cab drivers for all eternity, just like Trenton, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee, Newark, and Detroit are still stuck with all the black Alabama sharecroppers cum factory workers after the mills closed.