WASHINGTON -- Concerns about self-driving cars displacing a huge number of semi-skilled workers are overblown and should be balanced against overwhelming potential advantages in cheaper transportation, safety, mobility, productivity and cleaner air, according to a team of economists and transportation scholars.
In a report released Tuesday, the experts conservatively estimate the annual economic payback from automated vehicles will be $800 billion by 2050, with a cumulative impact of up to $6.3 trillion, mostly from reducing highway crashes and congestion, and freeing commuters to spend time on activities other than driving. The economic benefits are likely much larger, but are difficult to calculate because the full scope of its potential remains unclear at this early stage of development.
The report, "America's Workforce and the Self-Driving Future," recommends governments create an environment enabling companies to rapidly pursue deployment of automated vehicles, while simultaneously preparing the workforce to transition to future jobs that require new skills.
"Due to the large-scale societal benefits from the deployment of AVs, policies to address labor force issues must carefully consider their potential impact in delaying the deployment and thus the benefits of AVs," the study said "Delaying the deployment of AVs would represent a significant and deliberate injury to public welfare.
"Rather than delaying the benefits, policymakers could ensure that the interests of the people who may lose jobs are well protected through effective mitigation programs."
The report was sponsored by Securing America's Future Energy, a group focused on reducing the nation's dependence on oil. Its goal is to quantify the benefits of automated vehicles to help inform policymakers and make sure regulations governing the emerging industry are proportional to any potential risk.
SAFE warned that many reports predicting severe job losses due to AVs tend to concentrate on worst-case scenarios, but many of the concerns are unfounded.
Driverless cars could shave 0.06 percent from the employment rolls by the early 2030s, and 0.13 percent by midcentury, but their benefits in just one year would dwarf the cumulative job losses over decades, according to the report. The gains in productivity and quality of life would be so great that society would be able to afford assistance programs aimed at retraining displaced workers, it said.
A large portion of the job substitution would occur in commercial driving sectors -- trucking, busing -- where more professional drivers are employed than in professionally employed car drivers, the report added. Trucking companies already face a driver shortage as fewer young people are interested in the hardscrabble lifestyle, so how many jobs would be impacted by the technology is unclear.
Automated vehicles will replace many jobs with ones developing and managing the technology, and catalyze economic growth in other sectors, much like the interstate highway system and the Internet did, by freeing up individuals to devote to other productive endeavors, thereby increasing their discretionary income and creating more demand for goods and transportation, the experts said.
The report pointed to automated teller machines as an example of how AVs might impact the labor force. The machines led to the loss of several thousand bank teller jobs in 1986-96, but the situation eventually reversed because they allowed banks to operate at lower costs so banks chose to open more branches for easier access and a stronger community presence.