Beep-Boop, you can drive my car

Driverless car. (PHOTO: UK Dept. of Transportation, Flickr CC)

News coverage of driverless cars tends to skew from “Oh, wow, look at these fancy gadgets” to “Look out, the robots are taking over!” But we’re going to need to take a very real look at autonomous vehicle technology. After all, it will dramatically reshape our lives in Northern Minnesota.

Like most change, the issue can be divvied into “good” and “bad.”

For instance, Dan Kraker at Minnesota Public Radio reported this week on how driverless cars could revolutionize the lives of people who can’t drive. In rural places like Northern Minnesota, a driverless vehicle outfitted to serve people in motorized wheelchairs could add tremendous depth to people’s lives.

In a recent column, I mentioned MobilityMania in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Myrna Peterson, one of the organizers, is a big proponent of driverless technology on the roads of Itasca County. In the future, millions will live on the edges of towns and might not have family to drive them around. In that event, driverless cars sound not only cool, but perhaps necessary.

On other other hand, as we’ve pointed out frequently here at MinnesotaBrown, if a driverless vehicle can bring you from Togo to Hibbing, it can also haul 240 tons of taconite from the pit to the processing plant. It could even haul a truck full of Coors from Boulder, Colorado, to Texarkana, Arkansas. In other words, “truck driver” remains the top vocation in the state of Minnesota. That’s true in most states. When thousands of “autonomous vehicle systems managers” replace millions of “truck drivers” we face a monumental economic challenge.

In fact, a recent study by the McKinsey Institute suggests that one-third of the U.S. workforce could be wiped out by automation by 2030 — just 13 years from now. This would be a seismic disruption of the economy.

But the change will come anyway. It’s not if, but when. And when it does happen, what will we do? How can we maximize the best aspects of these changes will minimizing the negative fallout?

These should be the conversations happening now in the public squares and halls of government on the Iron Range and beyond.

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