The Transportation Jobs of Tomorrow

The robots are coming, but the industry is still going to require real humans to keep us moving.

Workers at Canada’s Windsor Assembly Plant in 1956 (Courtesy: biglinc71/Flickr)

Advances in automation threaten the labor market across vast sectors of the economy. That’s not exactly breaking news. A recent report from the consulting firm PwC predicts that artificial intelligence will eventually displace 38 percent of jobs in the transportation sector, though it goes on say that, according to its analysis, AI will create about as many jobs as it replaces.

The report got me thinking about the revolution in mobility that our industry is experiencing, and what it could mean for the labor pool, current and future. When STRATIM launched the first integrated platform for managing urban fleets, we built a piece of software that is only as efficient as the vast network of people who use it.

One of our founding principles is the belief that the back-end is as important as the end-user experience (if not more so). An autonomous future is going to have real impact on the job market, but it is not going to look like the ‘robot takeover’ many envision.

For one, the uptime of fleets is going to be paramount, so anyone whose job has to do with ensuring vehicles function at their maximum capacity is going to have leverage in the new mobility economy. If, for instance, a self-driving vehicle is running efficiently as part of a fleet — whether its as a rideshare, a shuttle service, a rental, etc. — it’s going to mean many more miles incurred. That’s a good thing of course — a typical car today spends 95 percent of its lifetime parked — but it means many more opportunities for breakdowns, flats, broken windshields, wear & tear, dirt accumulation and other nuisances. Not to mention fueling or charging.

These are real-world issues that require some human controls, whether its mechanics or tow operators, car washers, gas/electric attendants or maintenance inspectors. A single flat tire on an autonomous vehicle that is programmed to be in service for 12 or 18 hours a day, or more, will have a cascading effect on that fleet’s operations.

People employed to predict, recognize and fix these problems as soon as they arise will be a huge part of any autonomous future. We say it around the office so often it’s become a bit tired, but it’s true:

You can have the flashiest new cars running as part of an inexpensive and convenient fleet, but if the vehicle arrives with a filthy windshield or trash from the last passenger in the backseat, the customer is unlikely to return.

Another truism: as long as automobiles have moving parts, they will break. Highly trained mechanics, technicians and specialists will become the lifeblood of the auto industry. Because of computerization of on-board controls and telematics, it’s becoming nearly impossible for the average driver to ‘pop open the hood’ and take a look when something’s wrong. Indeed, the mechanics of tomorrow might look more like highly skilled customer support representatives, and taking the car to the shop might involve little more than pressing a button on the dash and talking to a specialist on the phone.

Of course, the sharing economy relies heavily on fleets that are well managed. As I’ve pointed out, managing a fleet gets exponentially more complicated as it grows. Careers in autonomous fleet management are poised to explode as companies recognize the imperative of their fleet’s uptime. These people are likely to come from backgrounds in data analytics and computer science and will be integral in — to mix metaphors — keeping the trains running on time.

The automotive industry is already seeing a deepening shortage of highly skilled technicians able to work on the next generation of vehicles, particularly alternative propulsions like EV. Degrees in applied sciences and specialized training institutions could become a pipeline for tomorrow’s mechanics, whose wrenches will be replaced by iPads. Dealers are going to have to rethink their business models to be able to retain this kind of specialized labor, which already has a high churn rate. But for those who build a career in understanding the ins and outs of a new kind of car (and fleet), the prospects are bright.