November 20, 2019
By Amitai Bin-Nun, SAFE, and Kathryn Branson, PTIO
In mid-November, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew
Yang published an op-ed depicting a grim future for American workers at the
hands of automation. With the subtitle,
“Self-driving trucks will be great for the GDP. They’ll be terrible for
millions of truck drivers,” the op-ed painted technological advancement and the
future of work as a zero-sum game.
While it is important to focus attention on the need to train, develop, and
prepare the workforce for the jobs of the future, it is
wrong to characterize technological progress as happening at the expense of
workers. When it comes to innovation and the U.S. labor force, the choice does
not have to be binary.
As organizations committed to maximizing the public benefits
of autonomous vehicles (AVs), both PTIO and SAFE are dedicated to improving
outcomes for the workforce of the future and wider society by embracing both
the tremendous potential of automation and proactively preparing workers for
the changes to come.
With the right policies and investments, the United States
can enjoy the significant benefits automation provides while also supporting our workforce as we transition to an
So, what benefits can we already identify today?
According to a SAFE report,
America’s Workforce and the
Self-Driving Future, publishedin
2018, full AV deployment could lead to nearly $800 billion in annual social and
economic benefits by 2050.
table is a projection of the societal and consumer benefits of full AV
deployment. These will phase in over time and cumulative benefits may exceed $6
trillion by 2050)
Cumulatively, these benefits will total as much as $6.3
trillion by 2050. AVs hold the promise of achieving such significant gains by
greatly improving road safety—94 percent of fatal accidents are due either
wholly or in part to human error—reducing congestion and vehicle pollution, and
allowing people to reclaim time lost from sitting in traffic. Finally, the
report makes clear that partial automation of trucks (up to Level 3) will not
reduce employment, with additional studies projecting increases in trucking
At the same time, our work
continues in identifying, anticipating, and
addressing the potential impacts AV deployment
will have on the workforce. The SAFE study, based on work by scholars including
Dr. Erica Groshen, the former commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Labor
Statistics, Dr. Susan Helper, the former chief economist at the U.S. Department
of Commerce, and Dr. J.P. MacDuffie of the Wharton School, found that millions
of driving jobs could be partially automated over a time period of 30 years. In light of their analysis, we fully acknowledge
that deployment of AVs could present challenges for some workers.
figure is a projection of the marginal increase in the unemployment range based
on a more aggressive “high” faster deployment scenario and “low” scenario with
The good news is that since this transition will take place
incrementally over an extended period of time, we have the opportunity to
prepare and act proactively to ensure a smooth transition. We have, as a nation, done this before: Agricultural jobs
went from 41 percent of American jobs in 1900
to 1.3 percent today—and in the words of MIT
economist David Autor, “It’s not because Americans stopped eating.” Similarly,
over the last 30 years, middle-class jobs have increasingly required computer
skills, and the workforce has largely managed to keep pace with this evolving
How do we prepare the workforce for AV deployment?
First, we need to acknowledge the issue – both the opportunities and challenges. The
attention it is receiving during the 2020 campaign is evidence of greater awareness of
However, society would be poorer—by up to $800 billion per
year by 2050—if we stifled innovation. Instead, we must engage in a broad range
of policy efforts to 1) proactively work with stakeholders and technology developers to understand future
skill needs and train drivers well in advance of any AV-induced displacement,
with a particular concentration on jobs which overlap skills with drivers’
existing skill sets; 2) identify career pathways borne from deployment of AV
technology; and 3) support evidence-based policies and programs to prepare
workers for an AV future and mitigate any disruption.
Fortunately, some of these
policy measures are already underway. SAFE and PTIO have endorsed the Workforce
DATA Act sponsored by Senators Gary Peters and Todd Young, which would track
and collect critical data measuring automation’s impact on the workforce that
would support the policies discussed above.
Additional examples of the sort of policies that would
support the workforce’s evolution with technology include those that foster a
culture of lifelong learning, enabling workers to retool their skill set over
the course of their career as their work needs evolve.
There are challenges in preparing the workforce for emerging
technologies and there is no silver bullet that will solve this complex policy
issue. SAFE and PTIO will continue to work for a broad range of thoughtful
policies to answer outstanding questions around what AV technology will mean
for the workforce through supporting additional research efforts, modernizing
workforce training, and using evidence-based methodologies to ensure that
society advances AV technology in ways that improve quality of life and
economic opportunity for all Americans.