It's time to speed up the tech for the greater good
THERE has been a lot of talk and debate recently about what impact increasing automation will have on our workforce, national productivity and individual and collective economic prosperity.
If you were to listen to and observe all of the commentary on the issue you would quickly come to the conclusion there is considerable disagreement among and between technology experts, social economists and policy makers about the impact that automation, and more specifically driverless vehicles, is likely to have on jobs, and on specific types of jobs.
Most acknowledge that automation will be disruptive in the short term and that at least some parts of the workforce will be negatively impacted. Some commentators note, however, that historically, periods of rapid technological change have created more jobs than they have eliminated, and they have stimulated both wage growth and per capita incomes.
A good example is the introduction of computerisation during the last century - we now have a whole IT industry where none existed before, and we have new and more skilled jobs in many areas.
A working paper released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the last few days - "Should we fear the robot revolution?” - suggests the current technological revolution, often referred to as the "AI Revolution” or the "Fourth Industrial Revolution” may be different than previous periods of rapid technological change.
It finds that automation is good for growth but bad for equality and that there are "good reasons to believe that a resilient, adaptable economy will again vanquish the spectre of technological unemployment”.
As reported by Cowan from the Centre for Independent Studies, optimists argue that advances in robotics and artificial intelligence will make how we work safer and/or better, while creating new hitherto unimagined jobs and/or unparalleled opportunities for leisure.
Pessimists, on the other hand, worry that technological innovation will lead to machines making much human labour redundant and creating mass unemployment. Driverless vehicles, and in particular driverless trucks, have often been cited as the first places where this will happen.
There is a lot of conjecture about when we will see highly and fully automated vehicles on our roads, and following that, when they will form a sizable portion of the fleet.
There is certainly a lot of hype out there and many false predictions. Research by Grace et al (2017), found that AI researchers on average expect to see AI outperforming humans at driving a truck by 2027 and having a 50percent chance of outperforming humans in all tasks within 45 years.
I have been advocating for some time for us to accelerate our activity in the automated vehicle space to take advantage of the benefits earlier. And from what I can ascertain right now, it would seem likely that we will see fully automated vehicles commercially available in an array of on-road applications within the next decade.
And we will most likely have conditionally automated vehicles on our roads by 2020. That is certainly the intent of the Australian Government's Transport and Infrastructure Council.
In November 2016, Australia's transport ministers agreed to a phased reform program so that conditionally automated vehicles could operate safely and legally on our roads before 2020, and highly and fully automated vehicles from 2020.
The current consensus seems to be that about 20percent of new car sales in 2030 could be fully automated, rising to much higher proportions by 2040.
Much of this will be fuelled by fleet sales and the growth in activity generated by Asia. But predictions in relation to driverless trucks are much less reliable and despite the obvious productivity benefits, seemingly slower to be embraced right now.
Certainly, a significant part of the reason for this outcome are the concerns regarding jobs and employee reskilling and the highly regulated nature of the trucking industry.
The Australian Government reports there were 184,200 truck drivers in Australia in 2017, 96.1% were male, and their average age was 47 years, with one in five being at retirement age.
The average age of truck drivers was much higher than the average working age for the entire population.
There is an 8.7percent growth in jobs predicted in this sector over the next five years despite the age profile of drivers and the challenge in front of us with satisfying growing employment demand.
Introducing greater levels of automation has the potential to help solve some of these challenges and make current jobs in the industry potentially more enriching if the mix of tasks evolves and adapts.
A thought leadership paper by the Australia and New Zealand Driverless Vehicle Initiative on the "Economic Impact of Automated Vehicles on Jobs and Investment” states that based on achieving 1percent of the global intelligent mobility market, Australia would generate approximately 7500 direct jobs and 16,000 direct and indirect jobs based on traditional car manufacturing parameters.
The opportunities are also documented in a report published by the International Transport Forum (ITF) regarding "Managing the Transition of Driverless Road Freight Transport” which states that automated trucks would enable cost savings, lower emissions and safer roads, and that they could also address the shortage of drivers being faced by the industry.
Some commentators have questioned the approach the Australian Government took with government assistance to the automotive sector over the past decade.
For instance, of the approximately $1billion in funding announced in 2013 to be provided to the industry over the following five years to support vehicle manufacturers and supply chain companies, only $15million was committed to assist automotive workers made redundant to re-skill and find new employment.
The suggestion here is that if more government assistance was directed to worker reskilling as greater automation comes into effect then the benefit would be more substantial through more jobs and new market opportunities being created. CEDA recognises the importance of worker support programs in the statement by Davis that perhaps "we should view transitioning and supporting Australian workers as an opportunity, not a threat”.
While the ITF notes the adoption of driverless trucks is likely to reduce demand for drivers at a faster rate than a supply shortage would emerge, this needs to be offset against many of the other societal benefits that are likely to accrue, such as improving road safety and saving lives.
How do we value lives against jobs and do we even have to do that if we get the transitional phase right and invest early and properly in reskilling and upskilling programs? As highlighted by the ITF, preparing now for potential negative social impacts of job losses will mitigate the risks in the event a rapid transition occurs.
What all of this comes down to is that there is merit in exploring further innovation and automation in the trucking sector, in combination with programs to upskill and reskill workers.
There will be those who resist, but I am of the view that it is much better to be prepared, and in a position to benefit from the insight we can gain, and to be technology leaders rather than followers.