Autonomous vehicles will change society in more fundamental ways than most imagine. Yes, there are the obvious ways that everyone talks about: driverless Ubers, automated trucks, cities without private vehicle ownership.
But there is a large ecosystem of occupations that benefit from bad driving.
- Police officers. Most people probably won’t shed any tears over this. But there are a lot of cops whose role is traffic enforcement. With self-driving cars, they will be programmed to obey the rules.
- Paramedics, flight nurses, ER doctors. Fewer car crashes mean fewer trips to the emergency room. I have a friend who is a flight nurse. Her job is to get in the helicopter to rescue people by the side of the road. There will be less need for that. In 2010-2011, there were 3.9 million annual visits to the emergency room because of car crashes. 43% of those arrived by ambulance.
- ER doctors, radiologists, trauma surgeons. Of the people arriving in emergency rooms because of a car accident, 70% had imaging done, including X-rays (59%) and CT scans (30%).
- Insurance agents, insurance underwriters order, claims examiners, personal injury lawyers. There is an entire ecosystem of people who benefit from the financial aftermath of car crashes. Car insurance in the U.S. is a $100 billion business. There’s a reason you see that gecko everywhere; car insurance companies are perennially among the largest advertisers. That’s just personal insurance. Commercial is billions more.
- Tow-truck drivers, body shops, mechanics. Someone needs to clean up cars after the crash. Fewer crashes will mean fewer repairs. Body shops alone are a $40 billion business. 180,000 people work at body shops. The median salary is $40,000. That’s a nice lower-middle class job.
- Parking enforcement officers (meter maid), parking meter collectors, driver license examiners. More of life’s little annoyances. Vehicles will nearly always be in motion; no worries about finding a meter to park at. No meters mean no parking enforcement needed. That also means no coins. (Other aspects of technology will chip away at the collections jobs. More on that later.) In NYC alone, parking tickets generated $565 million in fines. Camera violations were another $100 million.
These are just the second-order effects. There will be plenty more. There a lot of other industries like roadside motels, truck stops, restaurants and more that will feel third-order effects.
Autonomous vehicles will become specialized. Need to run a quick errand? Get a small car. Need to make a trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles? Get one equipped with a large-screen TV. Others might have beds. Uber is already differentiating on a more limited basis with size of vehicle, luxuriousness and need for a car seat.
It will be one of the biggest changes to the transportation infrastructure since the Eisenhower interstate highway system was built beginning in the late 1950s.
Despite the challenges, autonomous vehicles provide a net societal good. We should minimize human suffering. We should be thrilled that air will be cleaner because fewer accidents mean fewer traffic jams.
But that’s cold comfort to those who lose their middle-class jobs.