Are self-driving vehicles the end of our economy as we know it?

Today, I read an interesting post on the Becker-Posner Blog about Secular Stagnation. Posner talked, about Stagnation due to a technological speed-up in a number of fields which would have a severe negative effect on employment. His main example was Google’s advancements in self-driving vehicles and how this would affect the employment. Posner asks the question, “What if automated vehicles become so advanced that they replace all types of service vehicles?” Imagine all of the truck drivers, taxi drivers, limos, delivery trucks, train conductors, airplane pilots, and military vehicles becoming unemployed. This argument comes down to the question of, “What can’t be automated?” It’s a speculative question. Will this happen? Maybe. Could this happen? Definitely. Think of the millions of service jobs being displaced from this technological advancement. It’s in the realm of possibility, that eventually machines will run the majority of jobs and employers will only need a small crew of service geeks to perform maintenance. Manufacturing, driving, flying, housecleaning, and medical procedures could use machines to replace a large portion of workers. How this would affect the medical field is also an interesting question. Doctors are already using robots to help them make fine precision cuts during surgery. Why can’t a machine eventually perform all aspects of a procedure? Once they are programmed, they could perform far more surgeries then any doctor.

Posner also looks at the other side of this issue. With the advancement in technology, companies will shed a large part of their labor force. This would make the cost of their products drastically cheaper. If you take the driver out of truck driving and shipping equation, the costs are drastically lowered. Companies would not have to pay for the driver, their expenses, and the limitations of their service. Automated trucks could drive all night long, as long as they have enough fuel. No stopping to sleep or eat. This savings from labor cost reduction would cause more items to be shipped via trucking and also make the prices of the goods being shipped to drop. These prices would then be passed onto the consumer but how would so many unemployed consumers afford to buy these goods. If this scenario happened, imagine the amount of unemployment. It could be staggering. Posner believes the federal government would have to set up some types of social programs to offset the unemployment to give people the means to live because a large part of the jobs sector would become scarce.

It reminds me of what people thought about computers when they were first invented. Computers were going to eliminate everything. Especially paper. Did they eliminate a lot? There were many jobs eliminated, but was it the end of society? No. Life moved on, more jobs were created and displaced workers eventually filtered into another industry. Look at what happened when switch board operators were automated with computers or when copy machines and printers came into the office space. It made the switch board operators and many secretary jobs disappear. Many manufacturing jobs disappeared after machines took over for manual labor to put together our automobiles and appliances. Jobs were lost but eventually people moved into other fields. Is the process ever fun? No. But it’s life. Adapt and change. Don’t be afraid of change. Realize, it’s a fact of life and you need be able to adapt.