Taxis, trucks, aviation systems, oh my!

More human-oriented economic activities facing creative disruption


On Monday the Federal Aviation Administration’s opened up the skies to an estimated 600,000 drones to engage in business activities in the coming year, up from a mere 20,000 today. “Drones are helping to create a whole new means of realizing the American dream,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said in a press conference Monday, as reported by National Public Radio’s Morning Edition.

Also this week, Uber, the online ride-hailing leviathan, is scheduled to launch a fleet of self-driving cars on the streets of Pittsbugh, Pa. The specific American dream, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, is “to replace Uber’s more than one million drivers with robot drivers — as quickly as possible.” At the same time, Uber is taking aim at America’s 4.3 million commercial trucks, having acquired Otto, the San Francisco developer of driverless big rigs currently being tested on highways around the San Francisco Bay Area, for a reported $680 million.

“Commercial transportation is the backbone of the U.S. economy but hasn’t benefited much from Silicon Valley technology advances, “ a co-founder of Otto, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “It faces many pain points and challenges. We can solve that, deploy and bring the solution to market sooner rather than later.”

Sooner rather than later — over the next 10 years — “commercial unmanned aircraft systems could generate more than $82 billion for the U.S. economy and by 2025, could be supporting as many as 100,000 new jobs,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told NPR. Foxx and Huerta took those figures from a commercial trade group. the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The 100,000 figure (actually 103,776), includes 34,000 “high-paying” ($40,000 iin parentheses) manufacturing jobs and 70,000 new jobs in just the next three years, according to the association’s study, published in 2013.

Back on the ground, Uber’s self-driving truck rollout “sent shockwaves through the community of about 4,000 drivers that serve Pennsylvania’s second largest city,” The Guardian reported. “It feels like we’re just rentals,” a 41-year-old Uber driver in San Francisco told the paper. “We’re kind of like placeholders until the technology comes out.”

And why rent when you can buy for less? Writing in the Wall Street Journal, former hedge fund manager Andy Kessler cites a 2013 Stanford University study finding that “some manufacturing robots now cost the equivalent of about $4 an hour — and they keep getting cheaper . . . and better.”

Actually, it’s $4.32 an hour, (compared to the $23.32 for a U.S. factory worker) according to the Stanford study. They’re getting cheaper primarily because “robots can operate continuously without major breaks, therefore, the cost per hour can drop even further,” the study notes approvingly. And better, especially for small and medium-size manufacturing companies: “a fantastic opportunity,” according to a Georgia Tech robotics professor quoted with emphasized italics in the study: “There are many tasks that don’t require the speed and precision of to- day’s industrial robots, and these tasks are begging to be automated.”

All this, says Kessler, author of Eat People: And Other Unapologetic Rules for Game for Game-Changing Entrepreneurs, is a good thing. “Technology always creates more jobs than it destroys. This time will be no different. Yes, some people are left behind. But as society gets wealthier, we can help them catch up.”

Doesn’t seem to be happening this time around. Nor have policy makers seemed to be taking much notice, despite the lessons that should have been learned from the impact globalization, outsourcing and other transformations have had on those on the wrong side of a zero-sum game.

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