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Is developing a driverless car industry the answer to South Australia’s unemployment crisis, or a harbinger of far greater job losses across the nation? By Max Opray.

South Australia pins jobs hope on driverless car industry

South Australia hosts a demonstration of automated driving technology earlier this month.
Credit: JO-ANNA ROBINSON, PHOTOJO

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill apprehensively grinned at the assembled onlookers in the early November sun.

The stage was set for surely the strangest automotive endeavour to take place on Adelaide’s Southern Expressway since the period it had operated as the world’s longest reversible one-way freeway. 

“This is, of course, an Australian first and we’re very proud,” he said. “But I know that’s not the reason you’re all here – you’re here to see something awful happen to me.”

On that note, the premier donned a pair of aviator sunglasses before hopping into a gleaming black Volvo XC90 for what promoters billed as the first driverless car journey in the southern hemisphere.

If anyone was indeed hoping for disaster, they were left sorely disappointed – the vehicle’s automated driving system diligently kept to its lane, avoided the two other driverless cars involved in the trial, and changed speed when appropriate.

Importantly, given the bold introduction of two-way traffic on the freeway in recent years, the Volvo understood that in Australia it is advisable to stick to the left side of the road.

The Swedish carmaker isn’t the only company seeking to roll out automated driving technology – extensive testing is being carried out around the world by the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Tesla and Google.  

Offering up the state’s leader as a crash test dummy was the culmination of a month of effort by South Australia to demonstrate its commitment to this lucrative new industry. A month earlier the state government introduced a bill to parliament that would allow driverless cars to take to public roads, and followed up that proposal by bringing the International Driverless Cars Conference to Adelaide.

Weatherill is pitching the development of a local driverless vehicle industry – a sector projected to be worth $90 billion globally by 2030 – as part of the solution to the state’s nation-leading unemployment rate, which sits at 7.7 per cent according to the latest Department of Employment figures.

For a city so historically reliant on a soon-to-be-scrapped automotive manufacturing sector, the notion of a shiny high-tech version of the old workplace is a reassuring thought, however, what was being discussed at the Adelaide conference was not exactly a resurrection of large-scale assembly-line car production.

Australian Road Research Board managing director Gerard Waldron, who spoke at the conference and is spearheading the Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative, wants us to instead think about phones. 

Waldron told me the now-ubiquitous devices in our pockets are an indicator of both how driverless cars would be used, and also what kind of jobs they would create.

Given such vehicles would be able to drop commuters at destinations and keep on driving, he predicted people would shun personal ownership of cars and instead rely on service providers offering personal transport on demand.

“It would probably work through a mechanism like a mobile phone plan,” he said.

He also pointed to Uber’s pay-as-you-go system as a potential model. And one can only imagine the schadenfreude the taxi industry would feel were Uber drivers to be rendered obsolete by new technology.

Waldron again came back to phones in regard to what role Australians could play in production.

“Much like for phones now, you’ll need app developers for cars,” he said.

“Battery management, regenerative braking capabilities, navigation – these areas will be undergoing constant evolution, with one hardware platform outliving several generations of software.”

Waldron pointed to South Australian firm Cohda Wireless, which has already established itself as a leader in technology that enables cars to interact with one another or any type of infrastructure.

He said there would be employment opportunities in cleaning and maintaining vehicle fleets, but was more circumspect in regard to manufacturing. 

Waldron said such vehicles were  likely to rely on generic internationally sourced components and be simpler to assemble than combustion-engine cars, with a potential niche role for Australian companies in adapting vehicles to fulfil specific purposes.

Whatever jobs of the future do come out of driverless car technology, the trouble with hoping such an industry will contribute to addressing underemployment in South Australia or elsewhere is that these vehicles are also projected to turn vast numbers of present-day roles into jobs of the past. 

Earlier this year PwC published the A Smart Move report on what jobs were most and least likely to be wiped out by new technology, and determined an 80.5 per cent probability that the jobs of 94,946 automobile, bus and rail drivers in Australia would be automated within the next 20 years. 

The mining sector is already making the transition – in October Rio Tinto completed its rollout of 69 driverless trucks at its iron ore mines in Western Australia.

Controlled out of a Perth-based operations centre and capable of running without bathroom or meal breaks for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, the vehicles will deliver a massive efficiency dividend for the mining giant, which is also introducing a fleet of unmanned trains and trialling robot drilling equipment.

Transport Workers Union national secretary Tony Sheldon said such technology might suit a remote mining site but not suburban streets.

He pointed to the outages at a number of Westpac-owned banks earlier this month as an example of how technology can fall short in times of need.

Sheldon has been in consultations with industry figures about where things are at with driverless technology, noting that Australia Post is to trial delivery-by-drone next year, in line with what Walmart and Amazon are already doing.

“There are important questions about the fallibility of technology we have to consider – not to say there aren’t some situations where pilotless vehicles are appropriate, but the community has to answer these questions, not someone who is going to make a hell of a lot of money out of some Californian dream ideology,” he said.

“We aren’t all built to be geeks – policymakers need to consider how we get the best balance for the entire community, not just for the next bright young person who can invent an app.”

Monash University professor Robert Sparrow, who spoke at the Adelaide conference on the ethical issues of driverless car technology, says job losses would be likely to flow well beyond the transport sector.

“You would put a lot of people in the insurance industry out of work, because insurance would be for fleets of cars rather than for individuals, and given driving would be safer there would be less accidents,” he said.

Sparrow argued there was nonetheless a moral imperative for society to roll out such technology if it proved capable of reducing the road toll by removing human error from driving, and the environmental benefit of taking large numbers of cars off the road. 

“We need to address head-on the distributional consequences – once upon a time the idea was considered utopian to never have to work and to have robots do everything, but now we think this is dystopian because we haven’t redistributed the wealth gained [out of automation],” he said.

“We need a guaranteed income for people and meaningful social contributions. Everyone working less rather than the elite getting everything. But that’s a political hope – there’s nothing about the technology itself that drives us to choose such a path.”

Sparrow and other proponents of driverless cars freely admit there is no guarantee self-driving cars will take off in the way they envision, but even if they are right, the fear that technology would wipe out human employment has had plenty of false starts since 19th-century Luddites smashed textile-making machines in a bid to safeguard the jobs of hand-weavers.

The next wave of automation threatens far more than just drivers, however – the PwC report that predicted the likely end of the road for transport sector workers ranked 22 other types of occupation as under even greater threat from digital disruption, and estimated 44 per cent of all current Australian jobs were highly likely to be made redundant within two decades.

A Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) report released in June predicted such a revolution arriving even sooner, estimating almost 40 per cent of Australian jobs have a moderate to high likelihood of disappearing in the next 10 to 15 years.   

Automated transport is but one of many 21st-century technological advancements set to supercharge the 20th-century economic vehicle that provided full-time jobs for all – a driverless car hurtling towards the horizon so fast the passengers are going to have to cling on mighty hard to avoid being left strewn in its wake.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 28, 2015 as "Driving tests". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.