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Will autonomous cars leave corporate drivers jobless?

The advent of self-driving vehicles aims to reduce car crashes and curb carbon emissions globally, but it also brings bad news. Countless drivers may be displaced or even face unemployment once the machines take the wheel.

Self-driving cars are inevitably coming, and some of them are already on the road for testing. With dozens of companies, established automakers and tech firms alike, as illustrated by Carsurance in an infographic (below), investing heavily on autonomous driving technology, competitive pressure is accelerating its development.

It’s unlikely to be truck drivers that are the first casualties of autonomous vehicles – there is a huge shortage of truck drivers globally, trucks are large investments and the transport industry tends to adopt new technologies slowly. Corporate drivers are the likely first casualties, for the perceived early adopters of autonomous vehicles are their own employers: businesses. Although company drivers only represent a small portion of the New Zealand transport sector, many jobs may be at risk of replacement when self-driving cars go mainstream.

The future may be bleak for corporate drivers, but imminent unemployment is not to be expected. Below are two reasons why these professionals should not go panicky.

Human drivers will still be needed on standby

The first self-driving vehicles to hit New Zealand roads will not be driverless ones. The government and the public are likely not going to allow these cars to populate the streets without limitations—not just yet. We need to see them live up to the hype first to make sure they can actually save lives and transport passengers and goods more efficiently.

During the period of transition from adaptive cruise control to full automation, corporate drivers will still need to be part of the ride. After all, one has to take over the vehicle under the right circumstances.

The current driving training requirements may need to be overhauled to prepare company drivers for potential new responsibilities, but they should be able to adjust quickly with proper guidance and commitment to learning.

Regulators might build barriers to driverless car adoption

As mentioned, the policymakers are going to monitor the safeness and performance of self-driving vehicles before allowing them to roam the streets driverless. It may take years before regulations become lax in favour of autonomous car manufacturers.

Furthermore, contemporary road designs may need to undergo some changes to make streets more conducive to the functionality of self-driving vehicles. Such modifications may also eat a significant amount of time to conceptualise, execute, and assess.

Also, the timeline for driverless vehicle adoption depends on how fast auto brands can perfect the technology. The sooner they can prove self-driving automobiles are safe and reliable, the more they lobby for friendlier regulations quickly.

Driverless cars may ultimately translate to jobless drivers, but it is not going to happen overnight. Those who have been in the corporate driver occupation for decades may be able to retire without having to switch careers, and aspiring applicants should not be discouraged to get a foothold into the transport sector.

There is no telling when exactly autonomous driving will cause pervasive job loss in New Zealand. However, one thing is certain: it will surely open new opportunities as it will close some doors like the other revolutionary technologies that came before it.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

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