Truck Tech

'Made by Human Workers:' Will There be a Backlash Against Automation?

Blog Commentary by Jack Roberts, Senior Editor

April 11, 2017

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Will "Proudly Made By Human Workers" become the "Made In America" tag of this century? Photo: Siemans
Will "Proudly Made By Human Workers" become the "Made In America" tag of this century? Photo: Siemans

Early on in Star Wars (the original one that came out in 1976), Luke is taking R2D2 and C3PO into the Mos Eisley Cantina, when a door alarm sounds and the bartender yells, “We don’t serve their kind in here!” Not wanting any trouble, Luke tells his ‘droids they’d better wait outside.

At the time, I figured that little scene was just a throw-away; a way to establish how alien the world we’re looking in on actually is. Oh, look! That bar is utterly crawling with weird and creepy aliens. But they’re all prejudiced against robots! How strange!

Nowadays, I’m starting to think that fictional animosity against robots makes a lot more sense.

In the past couple of months, a slew of commentaries and stories have hit both the mainstream and business-to-business press, as more and more people realize that a society brimming over with robot workers may not really all that good of a thing if you happen to be a flesh-and-blood human being.

And, as I’ve said before, I credit the news stories over the past couple of years on autonomous trucks as the critical-mass point where many people, often for the very first time, began to seriously contemplate a future dominated by robot workers. Because if a robot can drive a truck down the road, you seriously begin to wonder if there’s any job they can’t do. As this CBS News report from this past weekend noted, even jobs as mundane as herding cattle, making pizzas or <GASP!> journalism.

Because if a robot can drive a truck down the road, you seriously begin to wonder if there’s any job they can’t do.

I wrote a pretty lengthy piece on this very thing a few weeks back, as did my boss, Deborah Lockridge, just last week. And while she makes a strong argument that trucks today, tomorrow and forever, will absolutely require some form of engaged human interaction to function safely and efficiently, there are an awful lot of business owners who’d simply like to cut troublesome human workers completely out of the picture.

And you can’t blame them, really. If your whole reason for crawling out of bed every morning is socking back every single possible dime generated by your business, then robots are clearly the way to go. Robots don’t get sick, have kids that have to be dealt with, want vacations or even lunch breaks. You don’t have to give them money every couple of weeks or let them go on vacations or provide them with healthcare. They just slave away without complaint 24/7 for your enrichment. Which is why Carl Puzder, the Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. millionaire President Trump wanted to for Labor Secretary, struck so many people as an odd choice: A guy dead-set on bringing full automation to the fast food industry didn’t seem to be particularly tuned into the needs of actual human laborers. And, as more than one pundit has noted recently, unless you have an all-consuming desire to dig ditches or run a lawn mower all day, immigrants aren’t the big threat to American jobs. Robots are.

Things are far enough gone at this point where I am making a conscious effort to forgo automation whenever I can. Usually this takes the form of skipping right past the robot operator and demanding to speak to an actual human being when I’m calling a company for some reason. And I also make a point not to use the automated checkout lines in supermarkets. (Unless the actual human checkout clerks are swamped and I can save a few minutes by using the self-checkout.)

And that may be what we all have to do before long, if we’re serious about safeguarding well-paying jobs for ourselves, our kids and our grandkids.

It is possible in the near future that governments will choose to tax businesses that go the full automation route in order to make up for lost income tax revenues and fund programs to help people whose jobs were taken over by automation. I can’t imagine this will be a popular move among business owners and investors. So it will likely be a long, drawn-out, political fight to win any policy changes along those lines.

...if your competitors decide to be more socially conscious and make sure they’re allowing workers to make good livings by refusing automation, what then?

A more powerful counter-robot measure may simply be all of us. Robots are cheap and offer tremendous savings for business owners. But if your competitors decide to be more socially conscious and make sure they’re allowing workers to make good livings by refusing automation, what then? Will the slogan Made By Human Workers, or Made With Minimal Automation, become the new Made In America tag for the 21st Century?

It’s something to think about. All the robot workers in the world won’t do you any good if your customers decide they’d rather spend their money with companies that keep them and their friends employed and able to lead a fulfilling life.

The trend lines on this issue are clear: There is a lot of automation coming our way. And not all of it will bad. I’ve said repeatedly that I think some degree of automation in commercial vehicles will be a good thing that can help drivers be more productive and reduce stress.

But, as more and more people are starting realize, too much automation can benefit too few people at the expense of a majority of people – and,  if unchecked or unregulated in some fashion, eventually lead to societal problems we can barely conceptualize today.

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Author Bio

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Jack Roberts

Senior Editor

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

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