The last five installments of this series in NATIONAL BUS TRADER documented the recent impacts of robots on U.S. public transportation. Much of this picture is not pretty. Some things get worse by the day. One can prepare for “worse.” One cannot prepare for anything if not informed.
As I have written many times in NATIONAL BUS TRADER installments, many things lie beyond the control of those in the a particular field. Public transportation is one of these fields.
The consequences of robots provide a stark contrast to the glistening, beautifully designed, brilliantly engineered, clean fuel-burning, energy-efficient vehicles displayed on the pages of NATIONAL BUS TRADER and other trade magazines. They are often creatively-deployed in well-marketed services, often optimizing both safety and comfort instead of trading one for the other. The best are award-winning. These contrasts are a split-screen reality T.V. show. Vehicles are rolling off the production lines onto roadways crumbling beneath their tires.
Most Americans know the fundamentals of basketball. Only five players on a team can play at one time. Those who begin the game are referred to as “the starting five.” These five are often the tallest, strongest and most skilled. So too are the starting five of America.
As on most teams, basketball players work together for a single goal: Winning. But sports at least involve sportsmanship. There is no sportsmanship among the global starting five.
Of America’s starting five: Microsoft triggered the most intense replacement of labor with capital the planet has ever experienced. Google seems to have more impact on life than God. Amazon has eliminated stores and replaced local jobs with their delivery service. QuickBooks has moved bookkeeping from ledgers to computers and left some people feeling that it has become rocket science to master its complexities. And Uber is putting vehicles on our roadways that gobble up and smother public transportation. The world has seen other trends and monopolies in the past. None have been this deeply entrenched. None have been this unstoppable.
Others players on a team are known as “the bench.” The modern American bench is full of trinities: VISA, American Express and Mastercard. Equifax, Experian and Transunion. Facebook, Twitter and You Tube. Verizon, Cox and Time Warner. United Healthcare, Kaiser Permanente and Blue Cross/Blue Shield. CVS and Duane Reade/Walgreens and Rite Aid. Boeing, Lockheed and McDonnell-Douglas. Walmart, Costco and Target. Ford, GM and Chrysler. Home Depot, Lowes and Ace Hardware. Players further down the bench include Exxon-Mobile, AT&T and Johnson & Johnson. Trios of players “cut” from the team include My Space, Netscape and Outlook Express. Whatever happened to Bell Telephone, A&P and Toys-R-Us?
Just try to get someone from any of the major companies on the phone. If you can outsmart their robots, the overwhelmed Earthlings you reach will often not help you. Often they will not provide the help you need. Yet try living without this starting five and the bench. You cannot. These players seem to control the quality of food, air and water. They evaluate your credit. They control your health and the cost of your medicine. They control your ability to communicate. And they operate as permanent critics of your social status and behavior. They are everywhere.
In general, learning has been replaced largely by Google. Before one can say, “Mommy,” he or she says, “Google.” Google is the universal encyclopedia. The encyclopedia has already reached transportation. In days past, familiarity with the service area was invaluable. Drivers were assisted by dispatchers. Passengers arranged for rides by calling reservation clerks. Driver performance and conduct were monitored by managers. Efficiency was governed by planners. Driver assignment was provided by schedulers. Many of these positions were replaced by robots and apps. Robots and apps will soon replace drivers. They will soon replace transportation companies.
Not everything in technology has been bad. Early examples included railroads. Then came tractors. Then came automobiles. Then came washers, dryers, radio and TV. Then came modern medicine. These developments occurred within an explosion of jobs and an increase in business and manufacturing. President Eisenhower’s construction of 49,500 miles of freeways, begun in 1953, triggered a golden age of motorcoach service. Twenty year later, the energy crisis of 1973 quickly led to the elimination of pump jockeys in 49 states (New Jersey still requires them). Continued movement to machines and robots has further reduced jobs in many areas.
Also falling behind were wages. Drivers wages were among them. The cost of living has gone up in recent decades. Yet wages for drivers and many others have not kept pace. Some argue this has become a major problem. Drivers surely agree. So too might motorcoach service owners.
These consequences and their context are not political statements. They are business realities. One might argue that fewer jobs would translate into workers toiling for less. Yet in motorcoach service and other transportation sectors, these dynamics have translated into driver shortages. We have had driver shortages for at least three decades. What school of economics can explain this dynamic?
Driver shortages are not the only backdraft. Other things disappearing include stores, stay-at-home moms, marriages and families. Less noticed are roads, tunnels and bridges. Park-and-ride lots. Forests. Farms. Coastlines. Fish. Coral. Wildlife. Beaches. And roadway capacity. Many country roads once paved are now gravel. None of these trends portend well for the motorcoach industry.
Technology has not only transformed transportation. More and more, doctors are so overwhelmed by computers (and concerns for liability) that they increasingly need scribes in order to see patients. More and more, nurse practitioners are seeing patients. Access to doctors is increasingly limited. Primary care physicians are becoming specialists. This does not even factor in the proliferation of brokers and the ruse of virtual medicine: “Have your own doctor in your own home.”
The collapse in other fields is illustrative. In 1980, the Yamaha DX-7 digital synthesizer and drum machines did not just eliminate live bands. With rap music, they eliminated songs. They replaced notes with sounds. Body replaced soul. Disk jockeys replaced musicians. More recently, YouTube has replaced disk jockeys. Many Millennials think music should be free. Most of it now is.
As with music, many things which once were professions are now largely hobbies. During the Eisenhower years, doctors made house calls. They traveled on paved roads, across stable bridges. Doctors are going the way of musicians. Drivers are going the way of doctors. Roads are going the way of driveways. Bridges are becoming risks. What profession is next? Teachers?
It is not hard to see these things coming. After the last major energy crisis (1973), planning was increasingly replaced by politics. Increasingly, politics were replaced by lawsuits. As courts disappear, lawsuits are being replaced by settlements. Most legal work is now done by paralegals. Soon, paralegal work will be done by robots. So too will be most legal work.
Technology has clearly given us much. But as it expands it may well take your job. It could also replace your spouse, replace your home and replace your family.
We evolved. We created tools. We created agriculture. We increased safety. We increased comfort.
Along the way, The Starting Five changed a lot. A century ago in America, it was automobiles, airplanes, factories, refrigerators and radio. Fifty years later it was shopping centers, commercial flights, telephones, television and copiers. Concepts morphed into companies. Fifty years later, companies morphed into oligopolies. The tools of these oligopolies are robots and brokers.
In 1984, George Orwell said, “Freedom is Slavery.” In the Age of Robots, Winning is Losing.
Way back when, the Bible was always the highest scorer, the best rebounder and the leader in assists. Way back when, winning was not done at all cost. Way back when, there was sportsmanship. The winners shook hands with the losers. When the losers fell down, the winners helped them up.
On the wrong side of the digital divide, more and more drivers will become losers. More and more motorcoach companies will be memories. The robots’ owners will win the semi-finals. In the finals, the robots will beat the owners. If we are not careful, robots will become the owners. Artificial intelligence is a contradiction in terms.
Shopping stupidly, one will pay much more in stores. Shopping intelligently, one will pay slightly more. Shopping in stores is not the only grace. We have other choices. We can buy from those who get the phone. This is becoming less of an option as oligarchies expand and dominate.
Products and services do not merely have costs. They have values. Societies which respect values survive. Those which do not respect values do not survive.
In the Age of Roads and Drivers, motorcoach companies said, “Leave the Driving to Us.” In the Age of Robots, motorcoach companies need to say, “We Get the Phone.” Otherwise, what will our industry’s slogan become? “Leave the driving to no one?”
The opinions expressed in this article are that of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the publisher or its staff and management.
Ned Einstein is the President of Transportation Alternatives, a passenger transportation and automotive consortium engaged in consulting and forensic accident investigation and analysis (more than 600 cases). Specializes in elderly, disabled, schoolchildren. Mr. Einstein has been qualified as an Expert Witness in accident analysis, testimony and mediation in vehicle and pedestrian accidents involving transit, paratransit, schoolbus, motorcoach, special education, non-emergency medical transportation, taxi, shuttle, child transport systems and services...
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