Toyota has partnered with Uber to develop a fleet of self-driving cars for the ride-hailing app, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday. This may turn out to have a silver lining for low-wage workers.
Uber, which has over 2 million drivers globally, has been attempting to replace its workforce for some time, previously working with Volvo to do so. The company temporarily suspended open-road testing in California and Arizona earlier this year, when one of its self-driving fleet failed to properly identify a pedestrian and killed her.
But the risks of a technology not-yet ready for widespread use are only one danger posed by Uber’s pursuit of driverless cars. Not only are self-driving cars threatening two million jobs at Uber worldwide, but at a far broader segment of the economy.
Well over five million American jobs are under threat from self-driving vehicles, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the broader economic impact of automation. Half of all jobs are on the chopping block.
“It is the decision engine that will replace people,” said venture capitalist Kai-Fu Lee.
The march toward automation can’t be stopped, and probably shouldn’t be. Trucker and author Finn Murphy (his memoir, The Long Haul, tells about millions of miles crossed as the trucker U-Turn), sees the threat of automation and the futility of fighting it.
“I am not going to take the Luddite perspective – driverless vehicles are going to happen,” said Murphy. “The Luddites put their wrenches in the weaving machines and they still existed. And there will still be these trucks.”
And it could be argued, at least in cases like Uber, that’s not so bad. The gig economy, of which businesses like Uber and Shipt are pillars, has been pointed to as one of the main causes preventing wage growth in the post-2008 economic recovery.
In that case, it’s possible that automation destroying this sector of the economy will actually return the norms of low unemployment fostering wage growth. The only problem is that while an Uber driver’s job being given to an autonomous vehicle has a potential to restore something missing from the current economy, autonomous vehicles also come for jobs like Murphy’s.
Business Insider went so far as to declare the supply-and-demand model of the labor market “dead.” While low unemployment rates should mean businesses are trying to woo workers with better pay and benefits, they simply aren’t.
“It’s just not going to happen,” Troy Taylor, CEO of Coca-Cola Florida, said. “Absolutely not in my business.”
At the moment, at near-full employment, it can be easy to point to jobs statistics and ignore the fundamental problem of wages. When about half of America makes under $30,000 per year and 40 million Americans are in poverty, the near-record employment rate is a distraction.
So the gig economy both breaks the way labor markets traditionally work and allows politicians to ignore the fact that 40 percent of Americans can’t cover emergency expenses, or the grim reality that there is no city or county anywhere in America where a minimum wage worker can pay rent.
While the dangerous nature of automating the gig economy is stark, the impact both on the political structure and disastrous legacy of the gig economy might actually yield great benefits for America’s poorest workers.
That isn’t to say people won’t try fighting back, but that the battle is uphill.
Rather than fighting Uber and Domino’s and all the other companies trading human labor for autonomous, computerized labor, it may be a better strategy to ask how we, as a society, prepare for the financial disaster that comes when millions of Americans lose their livelihoods all at once.
Grit Post previously discussed basic income as a potential solution to this problem, and that’s a cause championed by a long-shot Democratic candidate for the Presidency in 2020. But it’s also been mentioned by former President Barack Obama.
Whatever solutions we decide, the reality is that Uber is among the first of many companies to challenge the model of a human-centric labor force, and workers and society may be better off for it in the long run.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.