5. Employment

The Committee heard that the introduction of fully driverless vehicles will have a significant impact on employment. Witnesses disagreed as to the extent, but most expect that there will be at least some job losses and changes in employment patterns.
At the same time, autonomous vehicles – both in the technological development and in the changes to society and the economy they are likely to bring – also offer new employment opportunities, and this chapter explores some of those and how Australia might be placed to take advantage in these new areas.

Job losses

While substantial impacts on the workforce are contingent on highly automated vehicles replacing human drivers – a prospect unlikely to eventuate in the short term – the Committee recognises that there will be negative impacts on the workforce as a whole and on the individual people who comprise it. For that reason, the Committee is of the view that both governments and industry should begin the process of preparing for the automation-led transition of the Australian workforce as soon as possible in order to minimise any potential negative effects.
The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) noted that the impact on employment from automation in its broadest sense is a major issue facing the global economy in the short and medium term:
The World Economic Forum estimates that a confluence of technological, socioeconomic and demographic drivers will displace 5.1 million jobs across 15 major economies by 2020. Modelling by CEDA [Committee for Economic Development of Australia] suggests that in Australia, almost five million jobs face a high probability of being replaced in the next decade or two while a further 18.4 per cent of the workforce has a medium probability of having their roles eliminated.
Clearly, only a small proportion of these job shifts or losses will be directly as a result of driverless vehicles, but they will certainly be part of the total.1
The ARC Robotic Futures Research Team also noted that the employment impacts of driverless vehicles are part of the broader move towards automation of labour, and that the skills required by those employed in a driverless capacity are not the same as those required by drivers:
In the domain of land-based transportation, the advent of driverless vehicles is likely to change the labour skills required in the trucking sector. Rather than entirely unmanned vehicles, research on automation indicates that the role of the driver is likely to change from vehicle control, to monitoring (Lipson and Kurman, 2016). The precise combination of skills required will likely change at different stages of the journey. For instance, highway driving with minimal variations might involve a high degree of automation, whereas city driving would require more human control for making deliveries and pick-ups.
Nevertheless, many predict that the consequences for the current transportation labour force are likely to be negative, given that the economic rationale for driverless trucks to reduce labour costs and increase safety (e.g. Validakis, 2013). Predictions are for fewer workers with one operative potentially overseeing multiple vehicles.2
Further, while recognising that some new jobs will be created as a consequence of autonomous vehicles, the USC argued that, ‘it appears likely that overall advanced AVs will result in an overall decrease in employment opportunities’.3

Professional drivers

The Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development (DIRD) noted that since professional driving roles are the most likely to be affected by increasingly automated vehicles, a substantial number of Australians will face uncertain employment futures:
… a range of current roles could experience varying degrees of disruption. For example, a number of professional driving roles could be automated to some extent in the future, including taxi, freight and public transport drivers. Around 247,000 Australians were employed driving trucks, buses and taxis in 2015.4
The Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI) acknowledged that the introduction of autonomous vehicles will fundamentally change the employment model for professional drivers, particularly taxi drivers:
With trials of driverless taxis in Australia expected before the end of the decade, it is likely that drivers will still have a role to play, and while that may be different to current tasks, there will still be a need to provide full customer care when it is required - particularly for people living with a disability, the elderly, and others needing a higher level of support during their point to point journey.5
The Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS) suggested that there are several ‘mitigating factors’ which may reduce the risk of any sharp decline in employment for professional drivers. The first of these is, as mentioned above, the likely timeframe of any such change:
Key predictions suggest that that any shift toward automation will take decades rather than years. A more gradual shift toward automation would increase the opportunity for labour to be absorbed by other growth industries. This kind of structural change is a continual process - around a million people have changed jobs in Australia every year over the past five years.6
DIIS also noted that the changing demographics of the professional driving sector will ease the transition. The workforce has seen:
… a steady increase in the age profile over the last 30 years. In 2016, persons aged 45 and over represented over half of all workers in these occupations. Rather than significantly displacing the current workforce, automation of driving occupations may reduce the number of new entrants and allow older drivers to see out their careers to retirement.7
The Bus Industry Confederation (BIC) also pointed to the ageing demographics of the industry to note that employment effects may be manageable:
The introduction of driverless buses in the Mass Transit Trunk Services segment if accepted by the community will cause a reduction in the existing driver work force. The transition to new driverless technology will need to be managed in a way that provides for an ageing workforce to be naturally retired from the workforce or retrained to take on new roles that will emerge. Drivers may become attendants on the bus for example.8
However, the BIC noted that retraining and redeploying older workers – particularly into a smaller total workforce in the sector – is likely to pose challenges for both the individuals involved and employers.9

Consequential changes

Beyond the directly affected industries, the Committee heard that autonomous vehicles will have a consequential impact on many other sectors.
The first of those is the broader vehicle industry, which extends well beyond professional drivers and associated roles. Motor Trades Association Queensland in its submission highlighted that approximately 90, 000 people are employed in the motor trades sector in Queensland alone. The advent of autonomous vehicles is expected to create:
… significant changes in the employment profiles resulting in jobs phased out in some trades and new opportunities created in others. In regional areas employment will be less likely to be impacted by technological change as the internal combustion engine will continue to be the motor vehicle of choice.10
If, as many anticipate, increasingly automated vehicles reduce the number and severity of collisions and other accidents, industries based on the effects of these will see a corresponding change:
… occupations that deal directly with the cause and effect of accidents such as insurers, crash repairers, road rule enforcement officers (including some police officers and council parking infringement officers), accident and emergency workers and crash investigation workers.11
Similarly, the submission from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) noted that the effects of the changes will not be confined to professional drivers:
… traffic police are likely to have very different roles in the future road system, and the courts may expect a reduction in caseload relating to road-related offences, potentially affecting employment for groups such as lawyers and registrars. There will also be implications for the health sector such as hospital workers and allied health professionals if the proposed reduction in road crashes eventuates.12
DIRD also noted that there would be further employment impacts if – as has been suggested – the rise in autonomous passenger vehicles significantly alters the current model of car ownership:
Businesses involved in the supply of vehicles to market (manufacturers, car dealerships) could also be affected if the overall size of the vehicle market decreases due to greater use of shared mobility at the expense of private vehicle ownership.13

New job opportunities

Autonomous vehicles also bring the likelihood of new jobs, through increased demand in some existing sectors as well as through the evolution of entirely new industries and business models.
DIRD outlined some of the possible employment growth sectors in its submission, highlighting that opportunities may exist that are currently unthought of:
… automation will create new business and job opportunities that could offset possible losses. There could be new roles in supplying, maintaining and operating automated vehicles, or other roles that use automated vehicles as a platform to deliver new kinds of services to the market. As with other disruptive technologies, it difficult to anticipate the opportunities that may arise with automated vehicles.14
DIIS identified new job creation possibilities for Australian industry across a range of sectors, including:
Agriculture; and
Integration with global value chains.15

What skills will be required?

As DIRD noted:
… past experience in other sectors that have undergone technological transformation indicates that new roles tend to require higher skills and education, particularly in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), and are higher paid positions (Hajkowicz, et al., 2016). This can create a barrier to retrain or reskill displaced employees so they can transition to new roles. Government education policies continue to focus on equipping students for the future workforce by increasing participation in STEM education and improving digital literacy.16
Professor Bradlow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering made a similar point, noting that there will need to be planning and preparation to mitigate the likely negative impact on employment:
I personally believe we will see a significant disruption in employment, and we have to plan for that, because, while people have as an article of faith that there will be new jobs, that is true, but we do not know what they are. More or less, the experience of the last wave of digital disruption over the last 30 to 40 years is that the people who lose the old jobs do not get the new jobs, so we do have to plan for a significant disruption to the employment environment.17
Likewise, Dr Bissell of the ARC Robotic Futures Research Team emphasised that the shift in the nature of the jobs created will be a substantial one:
I think that the key thing that we probably want to emphasise here is that the skill set of those new jobs is going to be significantly different from the skill set of the jobs that we are talking about in terms of unemployment. What is particularly significant are the skills required for these new jobs. Much of the literature presently talks about the need for digital skills, which are a fairly broad and nebulous set of capacities, but they are something that obviously is going to be important at each level of education and from an early age as well.18

Committee view

The role of governments in planning for the change in employment brought about by the introduction of fully autonomous vehicles will be discussed further in chapter 8, however the Committee recognises that witnesses and submitters to this inquiry were near unanimous in agreeing that there will be considerable changes to the workforce. As mentioned above, there are job creation opportunities worth considering in the Australian context. The Committee is of the view that the Government should give further consideration to potential national employment benefits from autonomous vehicles.

Recommendation 5

The Committee recommends that the Commonwealth Government establish a working party with industry and academic stakeholders to identify industry needs regarding the development of automated vehicles and support services, and implement a strategy to ensure that Australia is best placed to exploit emerging opportunities.

  • 1
    Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, Submission 38, pp 2 – 3.
  • 2
    ARC Robotic Futures Research Team, Submission 7, p. 3.
  • 3
    University of the Sunshine Coast, Submission 37, p. 12.
  • 4
    Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Submission 26, p. 29.
  • 5
    Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative, Submission 9, p. 11.
  • 6
    Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Submission 29, p. 6.
  • 7
    Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Submission 29, pp 6 – 7.
  • 8
    Bus Industry Confederation, Submission 27, p. 7.
  • 9
    Bus Industry Confederation, Submission 27, p. 7.
  • 10
    MTA Queensland, Submission 13, p. [4].
  • 11
    Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Submission 26, p. 29.
  • 12
    University of the Sunshine Coast, Submission 37, p. 12.
  • 13
    Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Submission 26, p. 29.
  • 14
    Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Submission 26, p. 30.
  • 15
    Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, Submission 29, pp 7 – 10.
  • 16
    Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, Submission 26, p. 30.
  • 17
    Professor Hugh Bradlow, President, Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, Committee Hansard, 11 April 2017, p. 5.
  • 18
    Dr David Bissell, Chief Investigator, ARC Robotic Futures Research Team, Committee Hansard, 24 May 2017, p. 9.

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