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What happens to drivers? The ripple effects of autonomous cars go beyond safety

Volvo Intellisafe Autopilot
Image used with permission by copyright holder
If you’re thinking about autonomous or self-driving cars these days, you’re probably thinking about safety. Recent events have raised serious doubts over whether self-driving cars are really ready for widespread public use. But that’s not what this story is about. This story is about the social and economic consequences of the coming wave of semi-autonomous and completely self-driving vehicles.

The good and the bad

When we think about autonomous vehicles, we usually think in terms of getting into a car in our driveway and punching in a destination, then kicking back and waiting to get there. That vision sounds awfully convenient and attractive, and it’s easy to think of benefits that come from that kind of technology. The very young and very old would be able use personal transportation to increase their independence, as well as the disabled who cannot drive a conventional vehicle. Commute time can be used productively for work, or for real relaxation. The dangers of tired, drunk, or otherwise impaired drivers would be effectively eliminated.

It all sounds pretty good, right? And so it is. Autonomous vehicles are a great vision that will bring a lot of benefits to a lot of people. But nothing in this world comes for free, and there are some serious questions to answer before we all trade in our current rides for robocars.

Who’s responsible for your car?

The first question, which is certainly about to be hashed over in court, is who’s liable when an autonomous car crashes? Digital Trends asked Sandee Perfetto, Director of Personal Auto Product Development at Verisk Insurance Solutions.

Nothing in this world comes for free, and there are some serious questions to answer before we all trade in our current rides for robocars.

“If you own a car, there are financial responsibility laws in place that require the owner of a vehicle to maintain liability coverage,” Perfetto observes. “Traditionally fault is attributed to one or the other driver in the event of an accident. In the future, this could begin to shift. It’s not even when you get to fully autonomous vehicles. Even now, when we have so many advanced crash avoidance technologies, where is the line? Who is responsible? Is it the driver or the manufacturer of the vehicle?”

If there’s doubt about who’s responsible when an accident occurs, lawyers and judges have to work through the liability question.

“It’s not a simple question of who hit who,” Perfetto explains. “You start having to evaluate if the driver should have had control of the vehicle. If it is a case where there’s still a steering wheel [in the vehicle], should the driver have assumed control? Is the driver responsible, or if there’s a malfunction is the manufacturer responsible? We’re in these transition stages where there’s potential for litigation.”

The problem is particularly thorny because there is no legal framework in place to answer the question of liability.

Volvo Intellisafe Autopilot-dash
Image used with permission by copyright holder

“This is an area where the industry overall is pushing for legislation to accommodate autonomous vehicles, both in terms of allowing them to be driven on the road, and how liability situations are handled. I see a need for traditional financial liability laws, if only to immediately address a claim, as opposed to being drawn out while there’s a determination made if the vehicle is at fault,” Perfetto says.

Finally, Perfetto sees the traffic accident situation changing, but not disappearing.

“One of the things we expect is the potential for reduced frequency of collisions because the driver has less of a role,” she says. “But when there are collisions, the expectation is for increased severity, which we’ve already begun to see. The cost of repairs increases because of the advanced technology when there are accidents. It’s not a given that auto insurance premiums will decline.”

The potential for recession

Most people take it for granted that essential goods move around and get where they’re supposed to go on a daily basis. You go to the grocery store and it’s stocked with food and everything else you need. You order from an online store and a few days later, a package ends up on your doorstep. For the most part, these services just happen – and they happen invisibly.

A widespread shift to autonomous trucks in the next 10 years could put millions of Americans out of work, triggering a steep recession.

But here are a few interesting facts: Driving a vehicle is an essential component of about one in eight jobs in America. There are more than 3 million professional truck drivers, and more than 10 million Americans hold Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDL) of some kind. Truck driving is the most common job in 29 states, including California, Texas, Ohio, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Iowa. Beyond all that, there’s a whole network of supporting jobs that serve truck drivers, from restaurants and motels to full-service truck stops.

Every day, about 69 percent of all freight in America is moved over the highway system, and according to the American Transportation Research Institute, driver pay accounts for 34 percent of the operational cost of trucking freight.  The fact is, there is no industry on Earth that wouldn’t jump at the chance to cut 34 percent of its operating costs through automation.

Dr. John Suh is Executive Director of Hyundai Ventures, which focuses on strategic investments and partnerships for Hyundai in America. He recently spoke at a conference on autonomous cars in Portland, Oregon.

“I think it’s important for those of us looking at technology to understand not only the positive but also the negative implications,” Dr. Suh said. “There’s economic pressure to eliminate driving, but truck driving is a solid middle-class job. You look at the data and the top two or three jobs in the middle income bracket are all truck driving. So we have in this country an issue of the erosion of the middle class.”

The average truck driver is 49 years old, compared to 42 for U.S. workers on average. A widespread shift to autonomous trucks in the next 10 years could put millions of Americans out of work, triggering a steep recession.

“If we decide to automate those jobs, then the question is, ‘What are we going to do to retrain that group of people to do a higher-value job?’” Suh asked, adding, “How good have we been at retraining people to a higher value job? We’re pretty good at training kids, but when you take 50-year-olds, do we retrain them to become a physician, a lawyer, a banker, and so on?”

It’s not just truckers

Swift adoption of autonomous cars has the potential to fundamentally reshape the United States economy over the next 10 to 20 years. If the potential exists to simply call for a ride and have an autonomous car appear to pick you up, owning a car (with its inherent liability issues) becomes much less attractive, especially in urban areas where the cost of parking and insurance can be extremely high.

Perfetto has been looking at generational trends in attitudes about automotive technology. “The expectation is that younger drivers are more willing to jump into an autonomous car. They don’t have a sense of ownership embedded into them to drive,” she tells Digital Trends.

It may take longer to catch hold in the suburbs, but if the uptake on services like Uber, Lyft, Car2Go, ZipCar, and other sharing economy enterprises is any indication, the adoption of fully autonomous vehicles could provide the basis for a massive shift to personal transportation as a service. That shift would have seismic consequences throughout the economy.

Volvo Concept 26
Image used with permission by copyright holder

If anyone can call a ride and have a robocar appear in minutes or less, swipe a card and go, and they choose that mode over the expense of owning a car that sits idle most of the time, the economic chain reaction starts at auto dealerships and spreads outward through insurance companies, parking providers, local auto-repair shops, customization and accessory businesses, and straight back to the automakers. Automobile manufacturers would sell primarily to other large enterprises on a fleet basis, which would affect the model ranges provided and the entire business model of the industry.

The change is already here

Legislators, lawyers, and analysts will have a lot of heavy thinking and work to do, but the simple fact is that the evolution to autonomous vehicles is inevitable.

Disruptive technologies have come along before, displacing workers and changing the way we live. Disruptive technologies tend to create new opportunities even as they eliminate old career paths. For example, the United States used to have a lot of people employed taking care of horses, but not so much lately.  That’s cold comfort to a displaced breadwinner in his or her 50s, though, and responses to economic disruption should be carefully considered.

Yet the drive to reduce costs and increase efficiency will quickly outpace concerns about any possible consequences. Even if we banned autonomous vehicles to save jobs, we’d soon find the technology developing in other places and finding its way back into our lives. The best we can do is to be cognizant of the issues and manage the consequences proactively.

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Jeff Zurschmeide
Jeff Zurschmeide is a freelance writer from Portland, Oregon. Jeff covers new cars, motor sports, and technical topics for a…
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