We need to talk about 2021, Driverless Vehicles and the Social Consequences

In 2005, Sebastian Thrun and the Stanford Racing Team won the DARPA “Grand Challenge” by having their prototypical autonomous car “Stanley” complete a 150-mile route through the Mojave Desert with in the fastest time. Their success provided the foundation for a company today known as Udacity. When history books are written, this will be only one of many success which will have been had.


DevBot, the world’s first automated car, will also be on the list. DevBot is a project funded by FIA Formula E Championship to develop the world’s first autonomous racing circuit. To make it work, they need autonomous racing cars. In 2016, in Marrakesh, Morocco, Formula E showed that this was possible through a demonstration: DevBot completed 12 laps of a race track at high speeds. However, this is only the beginning because FIA is busy developing what it calls “Robocar”: an autonomous racing car that will be able to calculate up to 24 trillion AI operations per second and hit speeds of up to 320 kph with its 4 motors, 540kW battery, 5 lidars, 2 radars, 18 ultrasonic sensors, 2 optical speed sensors and 6 AI cameras.


Now let’s be clear, I believe that all of this is laudable. My only problem is that we are not talking about the human consequences of such an effort. Just take Ford and Domino’s joint announcement made in August of 2017. The statement was simple: they wanted to develop a driverless car delivery system. It is a simple system. People would come out of their homes and type in a four-digit code into a keypad mounted on the car. This code would trigger the opening of the rear window and allow customers to retrieve their order from a heated compartment which can hold up to four pizzas and five sides.


As we know, autonomous cars are still in the testing period. Accordingly, the Ford Fusion in question will have a Ford engineer behind the wheel and have its front windows blacked out. As such, customers will not be able to interact with the driver. While, this test is happening in only one place – Ann Arbor, Michigan – a question has to be asked: will driving related jobs be replaced within the decade?


In my mind, there are two really good reasons for this question. Firstly, we have been working at this experiment for less than 20 years. Yet, in the time frame, computer scientists have already developed the computing power and technical know-how to turn the dream of self-driving cars into a potential reality. Consequently, in ten years, it is possible to develop the technology and bring down the cost of said technology. Therefore, it is safe to say that within my lifetime, if we want to solve the legal, insurance and infrastructure huddles, we could have driverless cars.


The other reason is even simpler: the corporate push to automate everything. Domino’s, for example, has been doing everything in its power to find a technical replacement for its human-based delivery system.

In New Zealand, Domino’s piloted a service provided by Flirtey, America’s first company to be licensed to operate a fully autonomous “FAA”-compliant urban drone delivery system. While, this experiment seems to have failed, it is not the only one that the fast food delivery chain has undertaken. In other countries, Domino’s is experimenting with an autonomous robot that is comparable in size and speed to an electric wheelchair. No matter how successful, each of these experiments is the notion that Domino’s will reduce their staff, to increase their margins and profits, is clear. Automation and cost reduction is the goal and other societal institutions will have to deal with the consequences.


Now, this might not seem like a big deal. I mean we are only talking about pizza delivery. However, imagine if this is only the beginning. Increasingly, we are moving to an on-line world where deliveries are essential. In my neighbourhood, as an example, I always see various delivery trucks. On a daily basis, the white trucks from Fedex and Purolator are seen. The brown UPS trucks make an appearance every few days; while yellow DHL arrive on a monthly basis. But it doesn’t end there.


If one notices, one will see cars carrying various symbols. Yes, one can point out various fast food delivery vehicles from companies such as Skip the Dishes, Just Eat, Hungry Eats, UberEats, Pizza Pizza/Pizza 73, Pizza Hut, Papa John’s and Swiss Chalet. Yet, it doesn’t end there because my friends and I use grocery delivery services or we have our Ikea Furniture or our Home Depot building supplies delivered. It is easy to see that if the hurtle of autonomous driving is solved; other robotics and communications challenges could be cracked.


Now, this conversation might seem like an insignificant thing, but it isn’t. For each delivery job provides a person with a job, an income and a purpose. As Ford proceeds on their goal to bring driverless cars to market by 2021, the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta and various municipalities should be asking a simple question: what do we do with the people who will be displaced? Since the Ford Motor Co. has formed a partnership with Lyft to create an “open platform” for self-driving car technology, we should ask what happens if Uber or Lyft or other ride sharing companies are successful in displacing taxi or bus drivers. We should be asking and answer those questions, but we aren’t.


Instead, we are likely to run down this path of automation and not witness the problems that will be created. It is silly to say that the technology is not developed enough to even talk about the possibilities. In London and Paris, automation has already hit their UnderGround and Metro systems. While, driverless car experiments are going on in various bitumen mining operations in Alberta. Given, that many people in Alberta work on operating trains, cars, trucks or buses for a living, it is important to have conversations about automation now, rather than five to ten years when people are being displaced as a matter of course.


The Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada should be talking today with professional associations and unions about which jobs are likely to be automated within the next five to ten years. For example, have municipalities in Alberta, the Government of Alberta or the Government of Canada approached taxi cab drivers about their future? If not they should because, in their case, a programme could be set up by provincial, federal and municipal officials to ensure that there is not a huge about of social disruption when their jobs come to an end. The same should be done for other blue collar and white collar professionals. For this trend is not going to end. We know in 1996, when a computer named Deep Blue first defeated Chess Champion Garry Kasparov at Chess that the world was never going to be the same. In 2005, when Stanley drove poorly for 150 miles, we knew that self-driving cars would be coming. The development of DevBot is just another signpost along the way. We shouldn’t wait until Ford hits its goal, of introducing self-driving cars by 2021, to have this conversation. We should wait for five years to see the devastation. Good Public Policy demands that have or develop the courage to begin the conversation about the innovations that will come. Smart Public Policy demands that we witness the evidence that is coming forward and that we use it to implement new solutions which are for the betterment of the majority of us without hurting the few or parts of our society. For in that way change can come forth without harming others and we can continue our movement forward.




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