If you look at the history of the economy, you’ll find that it’s a story of machine replacing tasks that were previously done by people. First came the spinning looms that replaced the work of people who knit everything by hand. Then came a raft of new inventions, made possible by electricity, steam and programmable computers.
But recently, the capabilities of machines have leaked into areas nobody thought was possible. Just a 14 years ago, back in 2003, prominent economists at MIT and Yale were announcing that autonomous vehicles would never become a reality. It was just too difficult to program them for every eventuality. No coder could possibly hope to capture every single unique circumstance that occurs on the road in a program, and so self-driving vehicles remained a pipe dream.
But just four years later, a team from Cornell University entered a truck into DARPA’s grand challenge competition to build a self-driving car and successfully navigated the route. Suddenly, the world had changed: a machine was able to perceive and interact with the environment like a human, making its way through nature as we do.
It’s taken a while, but now this technology is finally being employed by businesses. Last October, Uber announced that it’s self-driving subsidiary Otto had made a delivery of about 50,000 cans of Budweiser in the San Francisco area. The truck itself was still manned, just to make sure that nothing went wrong with the technology. But the delivery was a demonstration that autonomy is real and it’s going to be coming to a trucking business near you soon.
It turns out that the first and most obvious place for autonomy to be implemented is in the trucking industry. Truck drivers cost a lot of money, and they have to do a dangerous job. What’s more, rules and regulations about how long truck drivers need to rest makes it difficult for logistics companies to fit their deliveries into tight timetables.
Trucks that can drive themselves get around all of these problems, since computers never get tired and will work for free. What’s more, they’re a lot safer, even with today’s early-stage technology, meaning that insurance premiums are lower. Right now, entrepreneurs who get business auto insurance from a local insurance agent are paying for the risk that their drivers represent. But in the future, they will merely be paying for the risk of having autonomous systems on the road. In fact, in the case of autonomous trucks, it’s not entirely clear who will end up footing the insurance bill: will it be the trucking companies, or will it be the manufacturers themselves? Expect some interesting legal cases in the future.
The fact that Uber is pushing it’s startup, Otto, to develop advanced self-driving technology is revealing of their larger business plan: to do away with human drivers altogether. While this might be bad for jobs in the short run – affecting more than 2.3 million people who drive for a living in the US alone – it’ll mean lower prices in the long term.