How will self-driving cars affect workers? A Q&A with Carnegie Mellon’s Center for the Future of Work

The key question for Pittsburgh researchers: How does technology benefit all of us?

Jared Wickerham/ For The Incline
MJ Slaby

New technology has always had a disproportional impact on a specific group of workers, CMU professor Lee Branstetter said.

“We haven’t done much with that knowledge,” he said, adding that it’s up to leading universities and others to be more proactive, so advancements are better for society as a whole.

Cue the Center for the Future of Work at Carnegie Mellon University.

First started in 2010, the center focused on technology, but when research funding for initial projects ended, it shifted its focus to the economic and social impact of technology, said Branstetter, faculty director and professor of economics and public policy.

That shift happened within the last few months. And now the center, per its website, is looking at questions such as:

  • Can wage insurance help workers displaced by technology?
  • Can access to ridesharing help low-income people get better jobs?
  • What will be the overall impact of self-driving cars on jobs?

“We don’t want to stop technology. We want to anticipate the downside,” Branstetter said, adding that knowledge can help policymakers address disruptions.

The Incline talked with Branstetter on Monday afternoon about the center and its projects. We’ve condensed and edited this Q&A for clarity.

Q: The center is focused on how “disruptive innovation” impacts everyone. What do you consider to be disruptive innovation?

A: “It can mean a lot of things,” Branstetter said.

Self-driving vehicles can reduce the cost of moving things, while increasing productivity and safety of transportation, but it can eliminate one of the few jobs that pays a high wage to people without a college degree, he said. It can be extremely disruptive to workers driving trucks, taxis and limos, adding that those workers have honed their skills and can’t just convert them to other jobs.

Disruptive technology has happened before. (Think: ATMs.) What usually happens is the technology emerges and becomes widespread, it impacts jobs, and then policymakers try to adjust, Branstetter said. At CMU, he said, there are faculty members “on the front lines,” of self-driving vehicle technology, so the goal is to try to figure out when, where and how self-driving cars will have the biggest impact on employment before it becomes a problem for workers.

“All tech forecasts wind up being wrong, but we think that we can have the best forecast as possible,” Branstetter said.

Q: What is the current forecast for self-driving vehicles?

A: Highway driving is a lot easier than city driving, so early stage self-driving vehicles are likely to impact long-haul trucking, Branstetter said.

It won’t be all machines right away, as there still needs to be a way to respond to things that are unusual but predictable, he said, such as a sudden snowstorm on a deserted highway in Oklahoma.

That’s where platooning comes in: A first truck is driven by a person, but the three or four trailing trucks are autonomous. If the weather is too bad, those autonomous trucks could be driven remotely. “That roughly translates to a decline in demand of 75 percent” for trucking jobs, Branstetter said.

On employers’ end, some engineers said a current truck could be retrofitted and made autonomous for about $30,000, which is less than a year’s salary for a driver, he said. For the drivers, though, Branstetter said it could mean losing their jobs and taking new ones that pay thousands of dollars less. The average salary for truck drivers is $62,630, per job-posting website indeed.

Q: When does policy come in?

A: There are some policies that can be put into motion ahead of new technologies, Branstetter said.

One research project at the center is focused on wage insurance, which means the government would add a small tax for everyone, and that money could be used for workers displaced by new technology, he said. It would be a cushion to supplement new income and reduce the decline in wages, Branstetter said. He said this approach could keep more people in the workforce instead of using disability when they don’t need it.

“We keep that worker in the labor force, they will be getting another job, and they are out there doing something with economic benefit,” he said. “… It wouldn’t be just for truckers. Anybody dislodged from their jobs by technology would have access to this, too.”

Big shocks from technology are “fairly rare events, but if these people are baring all the cost,”then the grievances and bitterness will set in and that will impact voting, Branstetter said. He said that could cause adversity to advancing technology in national politics as leaders try to cater to these voters.

“Maybe we are starting to see that happen,” he said.

Q: Do you have any Pittsburgh-specific research happening at the center?

A: Wage insurance has to happen on the national level, but the center has a Pittsburgh-specific project around ridesharing, Branstetter said.

How would subsidized or free ridesharing allow low-income workers to expand their radius when searching for jobs? Branstetter asked, noting that a single mom might not take the job she wants — or deserves — because it’s out past the airport or in Fox Chapel, and that’s a four-hour round trip on public transit. Or, 20 minutes one-way in a car.

The experiment would ask people to sign up and be randomly selected to receive funds for ridesharingso the center could track how their employment opportunities change.

“We’re in the process of raising money for [the experiment], but we’re pretty excited about the possibilities,” Branstetter said.