Autonomous trucks have helped spur an emerging conversation on just how far robots can go in taking human jobs and the consequences those lost jobs means for society as a whole. Photo credit: Otto

Autonomous trucks have helped spur an emerging conversation on just how far robots can go in taking human jobs and the consequences those lost jobs means for society as a whole. Photo credit: Otto

A couple of hundred years ago, things moved a lot slower, but society was actually undergoing a radical and sweeping transformation. The steam engine had kick-started the Industrial Revolution. Factories were springing up. New-fangled ideas such as wage-laborers and a 12-hour working day were starting to take shape. At the same time, great thinkers like Adam Smith and Karl Marx were hammering out the basic concepts of the modern economic systems that shape our world today: Capitalism on one end of the spectrum, Communism on the other.

I was reminded of this today by news that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is under fire for suggesting that companies that displace human workers with robots should pay special taxes for doing so.

Gates’ comments were not well received by a number of business and government leaders. But he's one of the leading thinkers of our time, so when he speaks on a topic, I’m inclined to hear what he has to say. While his may not be a popular view, given all the talk about autonomous trucks at the moment – and the corresponding angst that talk has created – I do think it’s worth thinking about.

Lessons From History

Back to some history for a moment: Once the ideas of Capitalism, industrialism and labor had all joined forces, factory and business owners started looking for ways to cut or control costs. After all, the whole point of Capitalism is to make money. And, so the theory goes, you have to have help from other people if you want to make a huge pile of money. And you have to make doing that work worth their time. So you reward them for doing your work, too.

Of course, a key component of Capitalism is competition. And soon, factory owners discovered, to their dismay, that competition applied to their workers as well. They were free to leave for better pay, conditions or opportunities if they didn’t feel they were being treated fairly. So, over time, things like set work hours, days off, vacations, healthcare and retirement plans came into play as a way for industrialists to keep their factories pumping out the products they wanted to sell.

Meanwhile, these tycoons and industrials continually looked for ways to cut costs while increasing production. This led to more industrialization and, eventually, more automation in the workplace. Eventually, that technology increased to the point where machines began to displace human workers in manufacturing jobs.

The digital revolution is transforming our society, perhaps in ways even more profound than the industrial revolution.

The digital revolution is transforming our society, perhaps in ways even more profound than the industrial revolution.

None of this is news, of course. It’s been going on for decades. But what has changed today is the fact that now, for the first time in history, the business and manufacturing sectors have the technology to cut human workers completely out of the picture.

For a long time, we all knew this was happening in factories and manufacturing plants. But increasingly, signs of automation are creeping up everywhere. Even in occupations that were thought to be completely immune from this technology – like, say, driving a truck.

And while this may be a dream come true for rich industrialists and die-hard Capitalists, it also creates some massive problems in society as a whole, which is exactly what Gates is pointing out.

Impacts on Society

And here’s that problem in a nutshell: Chuck gets laid off because the company he worked for can now do his job with a robot.

Obviously, Chuck has a problem. He has a wife and kids. He needs to feed, clothe and shelter them. He also needs to keep them healthy and, if possible, provide the educational foundation to give his children the opportunity for happy productive jobs and lives of their own one day.

Historically, this is where most of the attention on this issue has been focused: Poor Chuck. He lost his job. He’d better get cracking and find another one!

But what if there isn’t another job out there? What if ALL the well-paying jobs have been taken over by robots? What then? How are Chuck and his family going to survive? How will they improve their lives and the lives of their children?

Let’s take it another step. When Chuck’s job was still going well, he made a good living. He had enough income to spend on all sorts of things: A new home. A car. Smartphones. TV sets. Refrigerators. Toys. You name it. WIthout his job, Chuck can’t buy any of that stuff. And you can have all the robots in the world kicking out TVs around the clock. But if nobody out there has any money to buy your TVs sets, you have a pretty big problem on your hands.

And I’m not done. When Chuck was employed, he paid taxes, too. He paid taxes on his income. And he paid sales taxes on all those products he purchased.

Now, nobody likes paying taxes. But governments on all level absolutely must have tax revenues in order to function properly. And say what you want about wasteful spending, the bottom line is that roads, bridges and the Marine Corps aren’t free. Somebody has to pay for that stuff. And one of those somebodys that is no longer doing so is Chuck.

Meanwhile, back at Chuck’s old job, the company is posting record profits for its owners and investors. All those salaries and wages they used to pay drop right to the bottom line. Healthcare costs flatline. Workman’s comp is no longer a big deal. With fewer workers on the plant floor, management is able to cut staffing in HR, accounting and other departments, too. And now all that money is dropping to the bottom line as well. 

Basically, the business owner has won. And everyone else has lost. And you don’t have to have a PhD in economics, accounting or business to figure out that this scenario gets very unsustainable very quickly for countries, states, cities, societies on down to families and individuals. And even, eventually for businesses that are depending on consumers like Chuck to buy their goods.

This is the dark side of automation that is only just now starting to be talked about. And while this may be the first time you’ve heard this, given the startling rate with which automation is moving into our world, I can guarantee you it won’t be the last. Because trucking, and truck-related businesses, won't be immune from these forces and their outcomes, either. 

The argument in favor of disruptive technology has always been that while old jobs disappear, new jobs appear. A century ago, if your workshop making horse saddles closed down, you could always move to the city and go to work in a car plant. But today, those new jobs have yet to emerge. Probably because they’re being automated right out of the box. And sooner or later, you have to wonder what people are going to do with themselves and provide for themselves if there are no good jobs left.

And how does our economy keep functioning if nobody has any money with which to buy any of the wonderful products the factories are pumping out and the robot trucks are hauling all over the place?

And how do we pay for new roads? Or any government program? Or the military? Or the post office?

What is responsibility of a company that opts to go to full automation, to its customers and the countries it serves and the governments that support and protect it?

These are fundamental questions about our collective future that are just starting to seep into our national and global conversations as to just how far, and to what end, autonomous technology will transform every single facet of our lives. And, I would argue, it was the advent of autonomous vehicle technology that has accelerated this conversation. Because, that was the moment, I think, when we all realized that the robots might be able to do anything. And that no job or occupation was safe from this trend.

It is very possible that trucking will be ground zero for the debate and for the decisions that are coming concerning the extent to which we will be willing – or even able – to allow robots to disrupt human workforces. I have no idea how this is going to play out. But I suspect it is going to be a difficult, even painful process that is going to require clear thinking and pragmatic decisions from leaders from every sector of our society.

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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