The automation debate has recently resumed surrounding the issue of driverless trucks, but this is becoming much more than just an environmental debate. As driverless cars, self-driving lorries and self-checkouts are becoming ever more commonplace, perhaps we should be asking: what does this high level of automation mean for our employment ecosystem?

In recent years, supermarkets have continued to increase the number of self-checkouts in an attempt to increase the efficiency of transactions in their stores (as long as there isn’t an unexpected item in the bagging area!) However, this has led to decreasing levels of human interaction within the customer facing retail sector on a whole, as technology and automation have stepped in to boost productivity, profits and respond to customers’ needs in areas like consumer goods and banking.

In fact, a 2017 report has cited the popularity of self-service kiosks as being highest among the youngest cohort, with 91% of under 35s surveyed using the technology; 52% did so simply to “avoid waiting in line” and 17% of all shoppers asked said they didn’t want to use the automated machine, preferring to “interact with people.” Notably, in shops incidents of theft were “20%” higher at self-checkouts in comparison to manual tills.   

Moreover, online crime is also rising as a result of technology becoming ever more sophisticated, so are the hackers. Ransomware attacks are becoming increasingly commonplace and we’ve seen that no one is immune to cyber crime, from international organisations through to their customers.

Following the proposed trials of automated ‘platoon lorries’ on UK roads, made up of a front lorry with a driver and the two behind without, questions have been raised about other motorists’ safety on the road with increasing speculation about the possible impact of hackers online. Yes, human error does occur and is always going to be a risk factor, however the code and design for these driverless vehicles has ultimately been devised by humans and goes to prove that nothing is 100% de-humanised just yet, or indeed (cyber)risk free!

A solution, to both potential unemployment and also cyber attack concerns, could be to recruit a cyber expert for every few platoon drivers who are employed. But, does the UK have the capacity to fill these types of tech roles at this pace?

In addition, we will still need human interaction to load and unload the lorry, after all robots need to be maintained by someone. In addition, compared to automated lorries, human drivers can be more reactive to situations as they make experience-based driving decisions outside of the specific lines of coded instructions used by their automated counterparts to react.

The US have trialled similar driverless vehicles with varying success, although some may argue that their infrastructure and landscape means that they are more likely than the UK to introduce these lorries to solve an industry issue, as well as utilising their longer highway distances, such as Route 20, to a greater extent.

Some say that this increased efficiency could have a positive impact on US production by  decreasing the transportation time between large rural areas and through the creation of a more efficient logistics system between warehouses. This in turn will increase employment levels.

Overall, the evolution of technology has been proven to aid humans by automating daily tasks through increased efficiency, like online banking and self-service checkouts. However, following large retail job losses, we need to ensure that there is a long term plan in place to begin re-training these former employees. Ideally, this would start with the positions being lost on our high streets, as many humans continue to be outsmarted by the very automation that often enhances their everyday lives.

Josie Ball

Further reading:

Cyber something: what’s happening

Innovation is developing the future that others will be required to adapt to