We must recognize that workers need a voice and real resources to adapt to the future of work.
The “future of work” is increasingly in the news, as people try to guess when advances in technology will replace workers on a mass scale. That discussion often leaves the impression that the impacts will be felt far in the future, some 20 years or more from now.
As someone who has spent nearly 20 years exploring the connection among labor, politics and technology, I can tell you that workers are already feeling the impact of artificial intelligence, big data and robots, thanks in part to climate change.
Take the recent announcement by GM to shutter factories in the U.S. and Canada so it can become a green manufacturer and a technology company all at once. GM could save “$4.5 billion by the end of 2020, freeing up money to invest in electric and self-driving vehicles,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
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Evidently, GM believes in science. After all, the Environmental Protection Agency concludes nearly one-third of all carbon emissions produced in the U.S. comes from transportation. Therefore, any serious carbon-reduction strategy means electrifying the transportation sector.
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Gasoline-powered cars driven by humans have no future on a warming planet. Today’s automobiles are basically supercomputers on four wheels. For example, producing the new F-150 pickup requires writing around 150 million lines of code. A Boeing Dreamliner — an entire plane — needs only 7 million.
Automakers going to the trouble to convert a car from gas to electric may well conclude that they might as well go a little further and write the code to replace the driver. Who’s most at risk in this initial phase of the artificial-intelligence transition? Commercial truck drivers, who make up the second-most-common occupation in the U.S., with 3.5 million workers.
It’s not just transportation jobs at risk: A gasoline engine requires 1,000 parts; an electric motor only around 50. Far fewer auto-part-supply workers will be needed in an electric-vehicle world.
To be sure, some data supports the idea that these changes are off to a slow start. The International Energy Agency reports only 1 million electric vehicles were sold globally in 2017. Washington state has just registered 6,843 electric vehicles, according to The Seattle Times.
Looking at these numbers, the future of work question may seem far away. It’s easy to believe that robots won’t be coming for our jobs anytime soon. But tell that to the 5,400 laid-off North American GM workers, who now face a fragile future.
Technology innovation is on an unstoppable march: Here in Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee signed an executive order promoting autonomous vehicles. The Washington State Legislature supported forming an autonomous-vehicle work group under the direction of the state Transportation Commission. The Cities of Bellevue and Kirkland are proposing developing an autonomous and electric commute pool program in a recent grant application to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
We must recognize that workers need a voice and real resources to adapt to this new climate.
During the 2008 financial crisis, GM, the U.S. government and unions joined together to make sacrifices to save GM and other big automakers for the common good. Can’t we do this again to protect millions of workers in this green-energy and artificial-intelligence revolution?