“A benefit to the US of more than $3trn per year”: How driverless cars will transform the economy

Dutch infrastructure minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen poses in a self-driving car in November 2013, on the day the Toyota-made vehicle was first allowed on the road. Image: Marcel Antonisse/AFP/Getty.

Self-driving cars, delivery drones, robotic chefs: living in Silicon Valley, you would think we were doing God’s work, delivering dazzling new technologies to a grateful world. Like missionaries convinced of their spiritual purity, the technorati have little patience for reality checks.

 The many benefits may outweigh the costs, but sometimes those costs fall disproportionately on groups ill-equipped to pay the price. Take autonomous vehicles (aka “self-driving cars”), for example. The economic, social, and environmental consequences  are difficult to overstate. According to the American Automobile Association, in 2013 the average car cost the owner $9,151 per year to drive fifteen thousand miles. The average family has two cars.

But new fleets of shared autonomous vehicles will reduce that cost by 75 per cent, saving nearly as much as that family currently spends on food – including eating out. According to a 2014 report in the MIT Technology Review, there’s a “potential financial benefit to the US on the order of more than $3trn per year”. That’s an incredible 19 per cent of current GDP.

This single innovation will transform the way we live. Why else are the founders of Silicon Valley companies like Google, Tesla and Uber investing so heavily in this new technology?

Then there’s the related saving in traffic law enforcement, wrecked cars, vehicle repairs and traffic courts. Studies project that traffic accidents will fall by 90 per cent. Garages will go the way of outhouses, and countless acres of valuable space wasted on parking lots will be repurposed, essentially manufacturing vast amounts of new real estate. Environmental pollution will be significantly reduced. Car insurance will become a thing of the past.

That’s all good news – unless you happen to be one of the 3m professional drivers in the US. Or a car park attendant. Or automotive insurance adjusters, body shop workers, car sales people, health professionals and occupational therapists who work with accident victims, or a myriad of others who make their living, wittingly or not, off the current structure of the automotive industry.

Self-driving vehicles are but a single example of a coming wave of automation – mainly driven by advances in artificial intelligence – that will transform the way we live and work. But the transition may be brutal unless we give some serious consideration to changing our economic policies to better align with our social goals. Technology is about efficiency, not justice.

To solve this problem in earnest, we need new financial instruments that treat vocational training the way we treat home ownership: loans secured solely by future earnings, just as mortgages are secured solely by the value of the real estate. Among other advantages, such “job mortgages” would focus the retraining of workers on jobs that are actually available, since lenders would only offer them if there’s a likelihood of a realising a return on their investment.

Then there’s the question of who will benefit from all this new-found wealth. Unfortunately, the answer is that the bulk of the value will accrue to the already rich: reasonably enough, those with the capital to field the new fleets of autonomous taxis will take the lion’s share of the benefits.

If we’re not careful, the modern economy may motor on without us, leaving the newly disenfranchised on the curb trying in vain to hitch rides from driverless cars.  

Jerry Kaplan teaches impact and ethics of artificial intelligence at Stanford University.

This article is adapted from “Humans Need Not Apply: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence”, published by Yale University Press.


Could twin towns bring Britain back together?

An unlikely pair. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Twin towns: an irrelevant novelty to most of us, a peculiar name on a village’s welcome sign. But could linking one British town to another – a domestic reinterpretation of this long-standing European practice – help bring Britain back together in a time of national crisis?

Born in the aftermath of World War II, town twinning aimed to foster cooperation and solidarity across Europe. Communities entered formal alliances, nurturing friendships and shared histories. Coventry forged links with Dresden and Volgograd, then Stalingrad, marking the devastation faced by their citizens during the war.

The democratisation of Greece, Spain and Portugal during the 1970s led to a new wave of twin towns across Europe, as did the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later. Since its inception, the focus of town twinning has been on uniting people through relationships. It is a testament to the initiative’s success that many of these remain to this day; Coventry recently enjoyed a performance at the city’s cathedral by Volgograd’s children’s choir.

While European relations have improved since the 1940s, unity at home has received less attention. As a result, Britain is riven with deep economic, political, educational and cultural divides. These fault lines are increasingly determined by geography, with a growing gap between our big metropolitan cities and almost everywhere else.

In comparison to other European countries, we face staggering levels of regional inequality; six of the ten poorest regions in northern Europe can been found in the UK. As outlined by Alan Milburn, the government’s former social mobility tsar, “the country seems to be in the grip of a self-reinforcing spiral of ever-growing division. That takes a spatial form, not just a social one.”

These divisions are poisoning our body politic. As Adam Smith argued in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, putting yourself in someone else's shoes is vital for developing a moral compass; in doing so "we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him..." But this is difficult when we have little interaction or experience of those with opposing views.

This is increasingly likely in geographically polarised Britain, with the places we live dominated by people who think alike. Our political leaders must commit time and energy to bridging these divides, just as the leaders of Europe did in the aftermath of the Second World War. By forging links between different parts of the country, a new era of domestic town twinning would do just that.

School exchanges between sister towns would offer an opportunity for children to be exposed to places, people and perspectives very different to their own. This would allow future generations to see things from an alternative and opposing perspective. It may also embed from a young age an awareness of the diversity of experiences seen by people across our highly unequal country.

MPs would be encouraged to spend time in their constituency’s sister town. First-hand exposure to voters in a very different part of the country would surely soften the views of even the most entrenched parliamentarian, making for a more civil debate in the Commons. Imagine the good this would do for Parliament today, with Brexit gridlocked because of the unwillingness of MPs to compromise.

In 2016 the Carnegie UK Trust launched its Twin Towns UK programme, a pilot linking twenty towns across the UK to examine how they might develop together. Emerging benefits include a reduction of insularity and a greater awareness of the bigger picture. Its focus was not on bridging economic divides – towns with similar socioeconomic characteristics were twinned – but initial outcomes from the scheme suggest a broader programme of domestic town twinning could have a powerful impact.

Looking further back, Camden has been twinned with Doncaster since the 1980s, a relationship that unionised Camden Town Hall workers forged in a display of solidarity with striking miners during the 1980s. Funds were raised to feed families of striking workers at the pit and Camden locals even drove north to deliver presents at Christmas. Though the relationship appears less active today, it serves as a powerful reminder of twinning’s capacity to bring people from very different places together.

As we prepare for Brexit it’s imperative that we protect existing twin town relationships with our European partners. This is of vital importance when we know sadly many of these are under threat from austerity and gloriously un-PC mayors. But we should look to breathe new life into these traditions too, where possible. Domestic town twinning would do just that: a step towards bringing Britain back together, just as a continent was reunited after the devastation of war.

Ben Glover is a researcher at the think tank Demos.