Mr. Roboto is Stealing Your Job – Mechanization In Trucking And Coal Mining

photo of actual robotic hand

by Tony Wyman


Automation vs. Truck Driving Humans

According to the American Trucking Association, there are 3.5 million people driving trucks professionally in this country, earning anywhere from an average of $41,000 to $81,000 a year.  And robots are about to put those drivers out of a job.

A recent story in the MIT Technology Review claimed self-driving long haul trucks will be common on highways in five to ten years, making the humans driving the big rigs obsolete.  Not only are self-driving trucks more efficient, able to drive long hours without taking breaks and less expensive to operate, MIT believes self-driving trucks will be much safer, too, as computers react much quicker to threats on the road than human operators can.

Audi is working on new designs for futuristic self-driving trucks.

“Self-driving technology can transport people and things much more safely than we do today and reduce the thousands of trucking-related deaths each year,” said a press release from Waymo, the self-driving technology company, formerly a part of Google.

With today’s technology, one person is killed or injured in a collision with a tractor trailer every 16 minutes.

 

Engineers working on the self-driving rigs believe they can reduce the percentage of those injuries caused by truck drivers, currently about 25% of the wrecks, to zero.

But what else they will reduce to zero is the number of jobs driving trucks, at least those driving on highways where the technological challenge is made relatively easy by the lack of stoplights, pedestrians and congested urban roadways.

Robot Plant Manager illustration

What happens if human truck drivers are only needed for local deliveries, much like airline pilots turn over their aircraft to autopilot for all but the few minutes to land and take off?  And if that happens, where do the millions currently relying on long-haul driving go for employment?

Coal Mining Jobs

Workers in the coal industry face similar threats.  Mining.com reported in 2015 that 96% of coal mining jobs could eventually be replaced by technology, including 45% that could be replaced now by existing technology.  They cited a report by McKinsey & Company, a leading global business consultancy operating in more than 70 countries, that said automation wasn’t only going to eliminate low-wage, low-skill jobs, it was also going to wipe out white collar, high-paying positions, too.

“The bottom line is that 45 percent of work activities could be automated using already demonstrated technology. If the technologies that process and “understand” natural language were to reach the median level of human performance, an additional 13 percent of work activities in the US economy could be automated. The magnitude of automation potential reflects the speed with which advances in artificial intelligence and its variants, such as machine learning, are challenging our assumptions about what is automatable. It’s no longer the case that only routine, codifiable activities are candidates for automation and that activities requiring ‘tacit’ knowledge or experience that is difficult to translate into task specifications are immune to automation.” 

Their study showed that about $2 trillion in wage costs could be removed from business expenses using existing technologies.  And while they go on to say few occupations – about 5% of jobs – could be completely eliminated by technology, many job functions can be.

McKinsey estimates 60% of existing jobs today could have at least 30% of their functions fully automated. This means less work for humans.  And with businesses having less work for humans to do, they would need to employ far fewer humans.

“Bringing Back Jobs”

That’s the problem facing President Trump and others seeking to “bring jobs back to America.”  The reality the president and his supporters aren’t facing is manufacturing jobs aren’t so much threatened by cheap labor in Absurdistan as much as they are by free robot labor.

The cheap laborers aren’t crossing the border on foot in the dead of night; they are coming to a factory in the trailer of a semi, currently driven by a man likely to be out of a job in the next decade.

Of the five million manufacturing jobs lost in this country since 2000, 88% were lost to robots, according to a study done by Ball State University.  Even during 2006-2013, a time when manufacturing grew by nearly 18% in this country, the number of human workers declined, while robots in the work force grew significantly.

And things are only going to get worse for the manufacturing worker in the years ahead.  Businesses are doubling their investments in automation leading economists to believe the number of jobs done by robots today, about 10%, will increase to 25% by 2025.

In the second part of our series on automation and the impact on jobs, we’ll zoom out and look at the macro picture of this looming challenge to the American workforce and some of the controversy over proposed solutions.

 

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