I am one member of a five person board. The opinions I express on this forum are mine only, and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Escambia County Staff, Administrators, Employees, or anyone else associated with Escambia County Florida. I am interested in establishing this blog as a means of additional transparency to the public, outreach to the community, and information dissemination to all who choose to look. Feedback is welcome, but because public participation is equally encouraged, appropriate language and decorum is mandatory.

Friday, March 24, 2017

What Will Automation Do to Mass Transit?

In Helsinki, Finland, self-driving public transport busses are being tested
At a recent County Commission meeting, several bus drivers from ECAT appeared before the board and implored the board to improve pay and benefits.  One commenter went through the pay scale meticulously and the rates of pay were low.  Shockingly low.
So what is the solution to the problem of low pay for bus drivers?
An easy solution would be to raise taxes and increase driver pay, changing the employment status of bus drivers from what they currently are-- contractor employees working for a third-party company—to making them regular county employees with pension plans and higher pay. 
This is what the union wants; this is what the drivers want.  If I was a driver, this is what I would want, too!

The argument against this is cost:  While I have not yet received what I have requested-- a cost
analysis of what bringing the drivers in-house would cost—I can imagine the costs could easily double over current levels if this happens.
Setting this whole issue aside for just a moment, what about necessity?  How long will drivers be necessary given the rapid advancement of autonomous vehicle technology?  If we take the path of least resistance and make drivers permanent regular employees with higher salaries and better, more expensive benefits, this will put extreme pressure on the budget. 
Budget pressure, at least as it pertains to local governments that MUST have balanced budgets, leads to demand for innovation and efficiency.  Put a different way, necessity is the mother of invention.  And sometimes this isn’t good for human workers in some fields.
So as an apt comparison, during the ECAT discussion I mentioned the fast food industry revolution as a stark warning.  In that industry, massive demand for “living wages” and artificially inflated (and unsustainable) pay and compensation is increasing the race toward automation to lower costs in the fast food business. 
Wendy’s will soon be installing 1,000 automated kiosks in its restaurants nationwide.  These kiosks will replace the untold numbers of $15.00 per hour order takers, because paying order takers $15.00 per hour is not reasonable, nor is it sustainable. 
Japanese "Robot Chef"
In Japan, robots are being programmed to cook—how soon will such robots make their way to American fast food restaurants to replace the $15.00 per hour fry cooks and $15.00 per hour burger flippers and $15.00 per hour soda fillers?
Imagine this:  The Wendy’s of the future might be all automated, from the janitors to the kitchen help, with just a manager or owner and a skeleton staff of $15.00 per hour humans overseeing the work of the machines.  So instead of 20-25 employees making $8.00-$9.00 per hour at a fast food shop, 3-5 human employees remain making $15.00 per hour and 20 or so humans become unemployed.  The upshot:  combo meals will still be a good value, and profit for the owners will remain high.  I wonder--  Is this the outcome that those that are clamoring for higher wages want? 
Sometimes it is wise to be careful what one wishes for. 
The 3-5 fast food workers in the above example, the ones remaining post-automation, will be making more than they ever have before, but they will also be working harder than ever with new responsibilities and tasks to complete.  Will this be better for the few humans that remain?  What about the 20 or so humans per restaurant that are displaced by the robots?  What about them? Too many questions…
As it pertains to the public transportation issue locally—could the same or similar scenario play out?
Last fall, the world’s first driverless busses were put into service in Helsinki, Finland.  Just this past January, driverless busses began rolling through Las Vegas, Nevada.
Driverless Uber cars are picking up passengers in American cities like San Francisco and Tempe, AZ today.
1.7 Million Americans that drive for a living are on theverge of replacement by automation over the next decade and a half, according to some experts.
So, what is the future, what will be the likely outcome and disposition of public transportation bus drivers if the costs continue to rise due to upward pressure on wage and benefits compensation in this field?  [Rhetorical question]

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