Driverless Vehicles Are Coming—But Not as Fast as You Might Think

By Mark Feffer Jan 29, 2018
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​Few people doubt today that driverless vehicles will have a dramatic effect on the workforce. But while much of the discussion has been somewhat breathless, focused on jobs that will be eliminated and often sounding as if breakthroughs are imminent, those involved in ground-transportation businesses say the full weight of change won't be felt for years. 

"Driver-assisted technology is already here, as are autonomous and electrical vehicles," said Anand Rao, the Boston-based global and U.S. artificial intelligence leader for PwC. The question, he believes, is how all the various aspects of their operation and support will "interplay" over the next 20 to 25 years. 

Even if only autonomous cars were being manufactured today, he explained, the market would need at least 10 years for driverless vehicles to become the norm. "The beginning of commercial adoption is several years away," he said, and real consequences won't be felt for several years after that—"15 years, bare minimum," he added.

Many HR leaders and artificial intelligence experts believe social concerns will act as a brake on the adoption of self-driving vehicles. In addition to the public's safety worries, experts expect both unions and customers to hesitate over different aspects of working with autonomous vehicles. Marilena Acevedo, vice president of human resources for PetroChoice, a distributor of lubricants based in Fort Washington, Pa., believes it will be at least five to seven years "before people start really buying into this." 

Chris Nicholson, the chief executive of Skyminds, a San Francisco-based company that builds machine-learning solutions, agrees with her. "Artificial and autonomous intelligence will be able to handle the jobs," he said. "What will slow it down is social pressure, legislation and the like." 

More Than Driving 

Societal considerations aside, Acevedo contends that replacing a truck driver will involve more than implementing technology that can safely steer a vehicle from point A to point B. "Our drivers load product in the morning, unload it at the customer's location and handle a certain amount of customer relations," she said. In addition, many of the company's products are classified as hazardous, so customers rarely want to do the unloading themselves. 

"I don't think a company like ours is going to be the first one to test this out," Acevedo said. "I think most people will want milk trucks to do it first." 

Acevedo's thoughts are borne out by the experience of farm-equipment manufacturer John Deere. More than 20 years of using autonomous navigation systems in vast grain fields has taught the company that any mechanism that drives a tractor has to "replicate the farmer." Dan Leibfried, director of embedded solutions at John Deere's Intelligent Solutions Group, told the web site Quartz that, "We have to have the ability to sense everything the human would inside of the system related to the quality of the job. … Whether it be preparing the soil, planting the seed, protecting the crop or harvesting it." 

While safety concerns and technical complexity are very real issues, so is the nationwide shortage of truck drivers. In 2017 the American Trucking Associations predicted that the industry would face a shortage of 50,000 drivers by the end of that year. Adding to the pressure, Acevedo said: looming retirements. PetroChoice alone expects a notable portion of its workforce to retire within the next several years. At least in the short and medium terms, the introduction of driverless vehicles "will alleviate the labor problem, but it's not going to be a complete solution," she believes. 

While most experts expect the impact of driverless vehicles to be felt more quickly in commercial sectors, the effect these vehicles have on automobile-related jobs will be no less dramatic. 

The most obvious impact will be seen among the drivers of hired cars, whether they operate a cab, work for a limousine company or have a gig arrangement with a company like Uber or Lyft. The bottom line, in Rao's mind, is "fewer and fewer people will be paid to drive others, and fewer people will even own a car." 

Time to Make Plans 

In sum, the full force of technical change won't hit ground-transportation with full force for more than a decade. If this is a long-term issue, should HR be thinking about it now? Yes, agree most experts, though exactly how "depends on what your goal is," Nicholson said. "Some will be tasked with managing a shrinking business, while others will focus on training and finding new people. Some will do both." 

One thing Nicholson is certain of: HR professionals should start paying more attention to their workforce's data skills, even in front-line positions. Since AI and machines run on data, he believes it's safe to assume more people will deal with data in their day-to-day work. For example, he envisions workers combining analytical skills with domain expertise in a warehouse or other facility to make sure vehicles are loaded and offloaded as efficiently as possible. 

Also, he believes there will always be jobs for workers with highly specialized skills, such as transporting ultra-heavy loads over backroads that are rough and far from the interstate. "Remember, AI can only do things if it has data," he said. In some situations, drivers will have skills that are needed so rarely that hiring a person would be more cost-effective than developing a machine solution.

John Karren, who leads PwC's U.S. People & Organization Automotive Sector in Washington, D.C., believes HR needs to start thinking less about individual jobs and more about how the workforce will look as transportation business models evolve to become more service-oriented. As an example, he points to how automakers don't simply manufacture vehicles today, but also maintain, repair and even monitor them.

"Connected vehicles and how they're transmitting and receiving information is also something to consider," he said. By 2020, he and Rao agree, commercial drivers need the technical skills to operate robots and communications systems; just being able to drive commercial vehicles will no longer be enough. Vehicle fleets won't be groups of individual machines so much as connected and coordinated systems. 

As a result, the ground-transportation workforce is going to become leaner, Nicholson predicts.

"Machines need caretakers, but you don't need as many caretakers as you do drivers," he said. "A driver will become more like a locomotive engineer, where you maybe need one person for six vehicles." From a business standpoint, he observed, "the net gain is zero if there's a person in every truck." Today's push for automation has a simple dynamic behind it: "Machines are cheaper than people." 

While Nicholson doesn't see a net gain of jobs in the long term, he does believe the advent of driverless vehicles will spur development of new roles for people who can support them. These jobs include technicians to maintain and repair advanced technology, data analysts to identify the most opportune routes for a vehicle to travel (take route one between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 10 a.m.; take route two between the hours of 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m.) and managers to oversee strategically placed service centers that maintain larger fleets with fewer people. 

Nicholson also predicts a wave of consolidation in the industry. "Those companies that automate early will eliminate their competitors," he said. "Finding the right new people is going to be a huge challenge."

Mark Feffer is a freelance business writer based in Philadelphia.

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