Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

The robots are coming for your job ... and what then?

Because this election season has been hijacked by a huckster and turned into a ratings-driven reality show, we’re not talking — at least not in serious terms — about what’s really happening to jobs in this country, and how we might adapt to that change.

Take Georgia as an example. Our state economy has long been based on the efficient transportation of goods and people. In fact, according to federal job-classification data, more people work as drivers in Georgia — truck drivers, bus drivers, cab drivers, van and shuttle drivers, delivery drivers — than in any other single profession in the private sector. According to those statistics, almost 120,000 Georgians make their living behind a steering wheel.

And with the expansion of the Port of Savannah and a huge public investment in the the state’s freight-movement network, state officials even worry that the demand for qualified drivers is going to exceed the supply.

Look a few years ahead, though, and things change dramatically. Auto companies such as Ford, Tesla and Toyota are investing billions of dollars in autonomous self-driving vehicles, as are technology companies such as Google and Apple.  In less than a generation, perhaps in a decade, experts in the field predict that most if not all driving jobs will fall victim to robotics. Uber and Lyft are also heavily involved, already foreseeing the day when you'll summon a driverless car.

If all this sounds a bit too sci-fi, I sympathize. But back in 1990, how much of today's world would have seemed equally unlikely? Those companies aren't investing that kind of capital in something that might happen; that's the kind of money you invest to ensure that it happens. Last year, for example, Freightliner introduced and licensed its first road-ready self-driving 18-wheeler, which it calls “Inspiration,” and it’s already being tested on public highways.

The benefits of moving human beings from behind the wheel are enormous. More than 90 percent of auto accidents are caused by human error; eliminating humans will eliminate those errors and the tens of thousands of annual fatalities that come with them. Ask the families of those five young Georgia Southern nursing students killed in a trucking accident on I-16 last year about the value of such a change.

Then there’s the economics of it. Self-driving trucks don’t need to sleep, they don’t need vacations, they don’t need a health care plan or pension and they don’t get an hourly wage. They are on the road 24 hours a day.

However, as a price of that efficiency, tens of thousands of Georgians and millions of Americans nationwide will lose their profession, with no real idea of where they can turn next. It’s the next chapter in an ongoing narrative in which millions of good-paying manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the last 30 years, stripping families of the middle-class incomes that those jobs once provided and fueling an air of ugly desperation in our political debates.

Contrary to much of that debate, manufacturing hasn’t declined in this country. The golden age of U.S.-based manufacturing is today -- even adjusted for inflation, American factories produce twice as much as they did 30 years ago. They just do it more efficiently. And while the history of technology tells us that better-paid jobs have always popped up to replace those that vanished, you do have to wonder whether at some point, that history ends.

And if it has, what do we do about it?

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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.