Our Autonomous Car Future

The recent headlines about accidents involving autonomous vehicles raise real concerns about safety and the need for regulations in an emerging industry.  But there is no doubt these concerns will be resolved and that self-driving cars are in our immediate future.

There has been, in fact, a raging debate for the past several years over how long it will be before we see “self-driving” cars on the road. 2025? 2030? That debate ended last October when Tesla began selling a car that applies the accelerator and turns the wheel without the driver touching either. Two enterprising Tesla employees drove the car from Los Angeles to New York in two days. The car steered itself 96 percent of the time. Google’s self-driving cars have logged 1.5 million miles, and nearly every major car manufacturer is working on a fully self-driving car. Even Apple is planning to put a largely self-driving car on the road by 2019. The revolution is here.

The good news is that self-driving cars will bring enormous benefits. They will save many of the 33,000 American lives lost each year in car accidents, 90 percent of which are caused by human error. They will dramatically reduce fuel use and congestion, saving many of the 8 billion hours Americans spend in traffic in a year. And they will also liberate millions of people, including the young and the disabled, who are unable to drive themselves or access public transportation.

Self-driving technology will also transform the trucking industry. European companies, including Daimler and Volvo, recently launched a fleet of self-driving delivery trucks across Europe. Communicating autonomously through wireless internet, the trucks follow each other closely, reducing traffic congestion by up to 15% and saving $6,000 in gas costs for every 100,000 miles. With such substantial economic and efficiency gains, expect trucking and delivery companies to be early adopters of self-driving technology.

 

But while many are excited about this opportunity, we all need to ask an important question: What will happen to the 3 million truck drivers, 200,000 taxi drivers, and 170,000 glass and body repair technicians across America who may find themselves out of work? Even in California, where technology, tourism and agriculture dominate, it may be surprising to learn that the single biggest job for the last 20 years has not actually been a farmer or tech worker, but a truck driver.

This is where government comes in. As more and more industries are transformed by technology, we need government and business to work together to ensure that Americans are prepared to succeed in the new economy. State legislatures must begin their work now to prepare for the dawn of self-driving cars.

We need to prepare transportation and delivery workers who may become displaced to compete for the jobs of the future. Thanks to groups like the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, the Los Angeles Area Chamber, and others, we have a good sense of what these jobs will be. Over the next ten years, for example, we will see tens of thousands of jobs created in occupations like law enforcement and construction, health informatics and home health care, mobile development, and user interface design, and data mining and virtualization.

Many of these jobs require advanced education or training, but that doesn’t mean you need a Ph.D. These are jobs Americans can learn to do. What we need is a commitment from our government to ensure that everyone can learn the skills to compete for the jobs of the future.

First, we must transform our community colleges so they provide the skills Americansneed. We should bring business and labor together with faculty to design education programs that respond to areas of job growth. We should empower educators to modernize curricula to respond to changing labor market needs. And we should provide free or reduced tuition to students seeking a degree or certification in an area of job growth.

Second, we should provide incentives to companies to invest in on-the-job training. When businesses invest in their own employees, workers move up career ladders without having to take time off work to learn new skills, and businesses operate more efficiently by tapping existing employees as new needs arise.

Third, we should invest in public-private partnerships to train displaced workers to gain new skills. One such program, the Fresno Bridge Academy, takes families in California’s poorest county off food stamps in 18 months by providing targeted job and language training, and wraparound services like childcare and family counseling. The result: Fresno Bridge Academy provides a $5.50 return to the taxpayer for every dollar invested. We should identify and expand effective programs like these.

The clock is ticking. Self-driving cars are one of many new technologies transforming whole industries faster than ever before. We must begin now to create forward-looking public policy to ensure these new technologies, and the new economy they are creating, work for everyone.

Timothy Wang