Will Self-Driving Cars Cause Unemployment?

One of the big worries about self-driving cars is the extent to which they will cause unemployment. Approximately 5 million Americans drive for a living, mainly as long-haul truckers, although also as taxi drivers, local delivery drivers, and other driving occupations.

Will self-driving cars drive unemployment for these workers?

One thing to notice is that “unemployment” is subtly different than “job loss”. If somebody loses a job (say, as a long-haul trucker) but gets a new job (say, as a local delivery driver), then that person has lost a job but is not unemployed. They might be worse off in their new job (or maybe better off!), which is also important track, but they won’t show up in the unemployment statistics.

This is all a long lead in to Scott Alexander’s very, very long blog post: “Technological Unemployment: Much More Than You Wanted To Know”. This isn’t a post on self-driving cars specifically, and it’s not even a post about the future. It’s more about technological unemployment in the present and recent past. But the present and recent past are probably our best guides to the future, so it’s relevant.

The whole post is definitely worth reading. It’s almost unfair to excerpt it, because you can’t appreciate the full power of the meta-research without the run-up, but this the summary:

“Here are some tentative conclusions:

1. Technological unemployment is not happening right now, at least not more so than previous eras. The official statistics are confusing, but they show no signs of increases in this phenomenon. (70% confidence)

2. On the other hand, there are signs of technological underemployment — robots taking middle-skill jobs and then pushing people into other jobs. Although some people will be “pushed” into higher-skill jobs, many will be pushed into lower-skill jobs. This seems to be what happened to the manufacturing industry recently. (70% confidence)

3. This sort of thing has been happening for centuries and in theory everyone should eventually adjust, but there are some signs that they aren’t. This may have as much to do with changes to the educational, political, and economic system as with the nature of robots per se. (60% confidence)

4. Economists are genuinely divided on how this is going to end up, and whether this will just be a temporary blip while people develop new skills, or the new normal. (~100% confidence)

5. Technology seems poised to disrupt lots of new industries very soon, and could replace humans entirely sometime within the next hundred years. (???)

This is a very depressing conclusion. If technology didn’t cause problems, that would be great. If technology made lots of people unemployed, that would be hard to miss, and the government might eventually be willing to subsidize something like a universal basic income. But we won’t get that. We’ll just get people being pushed into worse and worse jobs, in a way that does not inspire widespread sympathy or collective action. The prospect of educational, social, or political intervention remains murky.”

I’m more optimistic about the future than Scott Alexander seems to be, although I am humbled by the research he has done. I am a little tentative disagreeing with him based on what mostly amounts to my own intuition.

It seems to me that technological progress over the long-term has made jobs much better. And these “better” jobs have funded a safety net for people who cannot work, although we can debate the appropriate strength of that safety net.

My hope is that autonomous vehicles provide whole new classes of better jobs for future workers, and progress marches forward.

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