Robot cars will destroy jobs – and create big human opportunities

Eliminating parking will likely lead to reorganizing cities, which means many new jobs.

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Robot Cars:

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There’s an element of Chicken Little when it comes to the issue of robots taking human jobs – it’s been said so many times, it’s starting to lose its agency. The latest study in this vein suggests that 6.2 jobs were lost in the United States for every industrial robot introduced between 1990 and 2007.

Such reports are increasingly common, which makes it easy to lament the corresponding lack in the opposite. Comparatively speaking, there are few studies or articles that attempt to predict how many new jobs – and what kinds of jobs – will be created through increased automation.

The reasons are simple. It’s easier to match existing and near-term technological capability with tasks that humans currently do than it is to predict the things we might some day do. If it was easy to predict the next great idea, after all, everyone would be rushing towards it.

This is why it’s refreshing to read a new blog post by Benedict Evans on the coming of electric and autonomous vehicles. While he doesn’t make job predictions, the Andreessen Horowitz venture capitalist does make an effort to look at some of the second- and third-order effects these vehicles will bring about.

It’s possible to interpret the post as more doom and gloom – that more job destruction is coming – but it’s also possible to come away from it with a sense of renewed optimism.

Evans suggests electric vehicles will first reshape much of the ancillary businesses that have grown up around cars.

Gas stations, for example, won’t be needed. And since those stations actually make most of their money from snacks and cigarettes, and not gas, a decline might actually lead to better public health.

“There are meaningful indications that removing distribution reduces consumption – that cigarettes are often an impulse purchase and if they’re not in front of you then many smokers are less likely to buy them,” Evans writes.

Bigger societal changes will come from automation, particularly when it comes to parking. A few factors here will likely align to completely change everything.

Firstly, there’s the cost of using a robot car. Removing the cost of a human driver in a taxi or bus will lower the cost of that service by three-quarters, Evans writes, which means that taking a roboride will likely be quiet cheap and within reach of just about everyone.

If so, there won’t be much reason to own a car, which will have big effects – and yes, probably lost jobs – on the insurance industry. But if people don’t own vehicles and simply dial them up on their phones when they’re needed, there won’t be much need for parking.

If parking isn’t needed, real estate can be completely rethought and made much cheaper. A study in Oakland, for example, found that government-mandated parking requirements pushed up construction costs per apartment by 18 per cent, while adding underground parking to a mall in Los Angeles might double its construction cost.

“If you both remove those costs on new construction, and make that space available for new uses, how does that affect cities?” Evans writes. “What does it do to house prices, or to the value of commercial real-estate?”

We don’t think much about parking, but it has effectively determined how cities are laid out and developed. Suburbs and everything that revolves around them are largely a product of commuting and parking. Changing that dichotomy provokes the imagination:

How do cities change if some or all of their parking space, especially in town centres, is now available for new needs, or dumped on the market, or moved to completely different places? Where are you willing to live if ‘access to public transport’ is ‘anywhere’ and there are no traffic jams on your commute? Does an hour-long commute with no traffic and no need to watch the road feel better or worse than a half-hour commute stuck in near-stationary traffic staring at the car in front? How willing are people to go from their home in a suburb to dinner in a city centre on a dark cold wet night if they don’t have to park and an on-demand ride is cheap?

It’s crazy to think that all of that change isn’t going to create a commensurate amount of new demands and opportunities. Robots aren’t going to fill those demands or meet those opportunities – humans will, and new jobs will arise as a result.

It’s important to note that this is just one aspect of technological change – Evans is only talking about cars. Increased automation is going to bring about similar massive changes in many other aspects of life and business, which means similar new opportunities and demands are going to arise all over.

Put it all together and there’s much more reason to be optimistic rather than pessimistic about the future of human employment. Rather than more studies on vanishing jobs, we need more imaginative thinking like Evans’ post that suggests what some of those new demands and opportunities will be.

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1 Comment on Robot cars will destroy jobs – and create big human opportunities

  1. The notion that autonomous cars could significantly reduce the total number of cars seems optimistic to me. Sure, most people only use their cars twice a day, but they all do so at the same time.
    School and work days aren’t very flexible (nobody would want their kids to go to school overnight), so you still need to move the same number of people during rush hour.

    You could run the numbers the other way: if autonomous cars get cheap enough, would they displace mass transit and therefore put more cars on the road? Would you start seeing 15 more cars instead of one bus, or 200 more cars instead of one subway train?

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