Self-Driving Cars Provide a Warning About Our Future, But Only If We Listen

One of the more dangerous disconnects in American politics lies between the technology sector and progressive public policy wonks. Talk to many progressives about the impact of mechanization and technological change on employment, and they’ll fervently deny that it’s a factor. Technology, they say, has always advanced and created new jobs alongside it, and fears of technological employment are overblown. There’s also an undercurrent in which blaming technological change for falling wages is seen as letting Reaganomics off the hook, and minimizing the destructive impact of weakening organized labor.

So, when I talk to many progressives about the rapid onslaught of self-driving cars, for instance, many just respond in disbelief, comparing them to flying cars that will never happen. Or they assume that people will reject them. Or they assume that they won’t have a significant impact on employment. There could not be a stronger disconnect between progressive policy circles, and the basic assumptions made in more technology-oriented circles on this and similar questions.

As far as self-driving cars are concerned, they’re coming–and fast:

Automated vehicle pilot projects will roll out in the U.K. and in six to 10 U.S. cities this year, with the first unveiling projected to be in Tampa, Fla. as soon as late spring. The following year, trial programs will launch in 12 to 20 more U.S. locations, which means driverless cars will be on roads in up to 30 U.S. cities by the end of 2016. The trials will be run by Comet LLC, a consulting firm focused on automated vehicle commercialization.

“We’re looking at college campuses, theme parks, airports, downtown areas—places like that,” Corey Clothier, a strategist for automated transportation systems who runs the firm told, The New York Observer.

The most obvious impact of the coming self-driving car revolution will be to put taxi drivers, delivery persons, and especially truck drivers out of work. The savings to the shipping industry alone in personnel costs and especially transport time will be enormous: no need for sleep breaks, fewer accidents, etc.

But when you combine self-driving cars with fleet services like Uber, the impact is enormous. Some people will still buy their own vehicles, of course, but if even 20% of the population switches to shared vehicle access rental–and they certainly will–most car dealerships won’t be able to survive. Cities will lose the significant tax revenue from dealerships, with cascading effects.

And self-driving cars are only the beginning. Artificial intelligence, big data, and the continuing flattening effect of the conversion to online business models will all continue to shave away not only jobs but entire industries. Sure, people will still have service sector jobs for a long while–but as we all know, those jobs don’t pay very well. America may be running closer to full employment these days, but we still have an enormous wage stagnation and underemployment problem that isn’t going away.

Many progressive policy analysts don’t want to hear this–or similar stories about our future. But this world is coming, and fast. The solutions of 20th century social capitalism won’t work for the challenges that lie ahead–and if progressives don’t get in front of them, the libertarians will be mapping our future for us, instead.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.