Friday, October 21, 2016

The Three Reasonable Presidential Candidates on Jobs: Good, Bad, and Indifferent Proposals

Three people running for president are worthy of your consideration.  What do they say they will do about employment?

In March, Hillary Clinton, later to become the Democratic Party nominee, put forth an economic plan.  She asked to roll back tax breaks for American companies moving jobs out of this country (excellent idea, and in the right direction), and create a new levy for those taking their headquarters overseas (also good, since many people work at these offices).  She wanted to raise the minimum wage (bad – we don’t want to reduce the number of positions right now), and upped her proposed floor from $12 to $15 later in the campaign (even worse).  She thinks employers should be required to pay for family leave (wrong – let them compete by offering these benefits voluntarily), and proposed the College Affordability Plan, to refinance student debt and provide free or discounted tuition to all university enrollees in need (not sure – seems off beam in principle, but could stave off a huge bubble in the form of what is now almost $1.4 trillion in US student debt).  Over the summer she spoke of a National Infrastructure Plan, costing $27 billion per year to build, repair, and improve highways, bridges, airports, water mains, and more.  That last item is the best of the candidates’ employment proposals, and I am glad to see more people suggesting it. 

Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson believes that those in government, including himself, do not create jobs – they come from, as his website puts it, “entrepreneurs, businesses, and economic prosperity.”  Accordingly, he emphasizes deregulation as the best tool to achieve employment growth – he and running mate William Weld credit that for the unusual improvement achieved in joblessness in New Mexico and Massachusetts, where they were governors.  Unfortunately, as much as I like him, and am impressed by his and Weld’s succeeding this way in their states, that course seems insufficient.  I hope, and expect, that a President Johnson would take more aggressive steps if we had a recession.

Green Party nominee Jill Stein expects to generate what she calls “millions of jobs” by changing energy use, nationally and completely, to renewable sources by 2030.  She also would get more people working by “investing in public transit, sustainable agriculture, and conservation.”  She considers employment to be “a right,” and says we should “create living-wage jobs for every American who needs work.”  I would feel better about her basis for putting more people to work if she were not against petroleum and natural gas-based sources, fields with many jobs, so much.  Since hardly every person who wants to be employed needs a “living wage,” I can’t support her there either.  However, her opinion on people’s entitlement to work does match one of the five comprehensive jobs-crisis solutions.

Those are your choices.  My views are above, but others also have strong, and sometimes differing, ones on these initiatives’ merits, how we could pay for them, and on the effect they would have on budget deficits and the national debt.  Which of these solutions are realistic and which are not?  How much are we willing to spend to get more Americans working?  Those are questions for you to answer, as you prepare for your November 8th decision.

Monday, October 10, 2016

"The Wealth of Humans" – The Latest Work’s New Age Successor Hits and Misses

Ever since I published what was the definitive book on the permanent jobs crisis almost five years ago, I have been possessive about that topic.  I think of it as mine.  That may seem imperious and probably is, but if you have written an award-winning volume based on a clear-cut but truly neglected thesis, you are likely to share that feeling. 

Last month, Ryan Avent, senior editor and columnist at The Economist, released about the third American book since the fall of 2011 on that subject, though he didn’t quite call it a permanent crisis, opting for “labour abundance” instead.  The Wealth of Humans attempted a broader scope, as shown by its subtitle Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century.  How good a descendant is it?

First, Avent did not cite Work’s New Age, but recapped, and had slightly different views, on the core issues I presented there.  He settled on the phrase “the labour glut” for what I called excess capacity, which he also called “the sheer abundance of labour,” and said that workers’ numbers “hold down wages.”  Indeed, he spent an entire chapter explaining the simple supply and demand truth that “higher wages are so economically elusive.”  He described why we are not going back to “the bygone age of mass employment,” which as I showed was due to new products never needing large amounts of employee time per item to produce.  He explained the breaking of the connection between pay and output through Baumol’s Cost Disease, an American economist’s principle, instead of by invoking scalability, or the production of iterations of goods and services at tiny additional cost, as I did.  He referred to the “digitally disappointing era,” which I specified as the lack of widespread computer-driven productivity improvement before the late 1990s.  He was also skeptical of the ability of further schooling as a solution to economic weakness, being in all fairness more eloquent than I by saying that “the low-hanging educational fruit has been picked.”    

Since The Wealth of Humans was published in 2016 instead of 2012, Avent had access to much newer information, and he covered it well.  He touched on writings by Thomas Piketty and others.  He discussed what he called “hyperglobalization,” and noted that many countries, the “never-developing world,” are not only still not contributing intellectual resources but have bleak prospects to do so soon.  He acknowledged the pooling of masses of money in a small set of companies and individuals by calling it “reserve accumulation,” correctly noted that that phenomenon explains why less of it has trickled down than it would if it were in more needy hands, and said that has led to “secular stagnation.”  He summarized progress up to press time in robotics and driverless cars, and showed its importance to the future of American employment.  He named and interpreted many other news items, including previous Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s infamous comment about 47% of Americans being “victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them” (referring mostly to those collecting Social Security at retirement age after decades of work).  He said, as I have implied but not put as pithily, that “in a way, it would be much easier if the robots were simply taking all the jobs,” meaning that our relatively good times have unduly blunted our awareness of the historical transition we are living through.

On one subject, though, the author fell into traps.  He stated that “car ownership could be obsolete,” which has no chance to happen soon among rural residents.  He cited Uber drivers averaging $19 net per hour as opposed to traditional taxi operators earning $13, which can only be due to poor cost accounting, but followed it up with descriptions of how cab driving is becoming more automated, and thus, according to his other examples, will allow them to be less skilled and in turn to be paid less.  These slip-ups, though, look suspiciously old in this fast-moving field, and may reflect his collecting information a year or more before the book’s publication date, when these issues were not as well understood.

As opposed to these two errors, I flagged four places where I thought Avent’s analysis was especially insightful.  One of his subtheses was that the ways of managing technological growth socially are lagging behind the progress itself.  He advocated more government spending, without which we are most unlikely to adequately deal with the jobs crisis.  He proposed an immigration policy similar to those I saw in Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union, that of allowing people in who can do jobs where there are not enough workers, and, additionally, those who can perform tasks especially valuable to an aging population.  Last, I’m still working out what he meant by saying “software is eating everything,” but I suspect something about which we all should be aware. 

On conclusions, I found his vague.  He said we should be “generous,” but did not define that clearly enough for me to understand.  I did not see any mention of guaranteed basic income, still the most obvious possible jobs-crisis solution and about which there has been a lot of post-2011 commentary and developments.  He stopped short of evaluating or even mentioning other ways out. 

Overall, Ryan Avent would have benefited by reading Work’s New Age.  That he works for a major publication is no excuse.  Information is available from a variety of sources, and this time it was personally clear, to me, that some were not considered.  The Wealth of Humans has a lot to offer, but it missed too much. 

Who will be next on this topic? 

Friday, October 7, 2016

We’re Leveling Off Now: AJSN Shows We’re Short 17.64 Million Jobs, Worse Than a Year Ago

This morning, the jobs, population, and expatriate-count data told us something unfavorable. 

No, it’s not the net new nonfarm positions added, which, while at 156,000 for September fell a bit short of the apparent consensus 174,000 projection.  No, it’s not the commonly publicized seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate, which rose from 4.9% to 5.0%.  It’s not the number of long-term jobless, those out 27 weeks or longer, which stayed the same at 2.0 million.  And it’s certainly not the other major statistics.  Those improved:  the labor force participation rate was up 0.1% to 62.9 percent; the employment to population ratio, the best metric for determining how common it is for Americans to actually be working, climbed the same amount to 59.8%; the count of people employed part-time for economic reasons, or unsuccessfully seeking full-time labor while on the job but for fewer hours than that, dropped 200,000, a lot for one month, to 5.9 million; unadjusted unemployment was down from 5.0% to 4.8%; and average hourly wages went up a penny more than inflation, 6 cents, to $25.79.   

It’s not even, on the surface of it, September’s American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which tells in one number our latent demand for work, or how many additional positions could be quickly filled if being hired were quick, easy, and routine.  That improved 356,000, as follows:

This August to September change was nothing meaningful, as more people are employed in the latter month.  Our cause for concern is that we are no longer improving.  Finally, after about 80 months of year-over-year gains, going back gives us a lower AJSN.  Here is that one:

How did we manage to get 221,000 jobs shorter when they have been created faster than our rising working-age population?  The difference is mostly in the fifth category from the bottom, “did not search for work in previous year.”  These people, whose numbers grew 268,000 from a year ago, say they want employment but are not looking for it.  There are also more American expatriates, some of whom would return if they thought they could be hired here, than in September 2015.  The same goes for those in school or training and for people officially unemployed, who, though only 30,000 more numerous, at their estimated rate of 90% taking readily available work still adds 27,000 to the difference.

What does this mean?  First, it tells us that we are not only breaking even with jobs demand, but may be getting worse.  Second, it reinforces that our prosperity improvement is leveling off.  Third, it reminds us that most people who would work if the country had an employment supply similar to that recently in western North Dakota are not officially jobless – in fact, they would absorb only 39% of the new positions those in our country could now fill. 

Beyond that, we’re still looking good.  We’re creating jobs well.  Wages, which still have reason to be held back by the worker surplus, are hanging on.  It is particularly favorable to see the two employment ratios get further away from post-1977 record territory.  Yet we now have no reason to think that in a year or two, times will be better.  The turtle took a small step forward, but he might not soon have many more of those.      

Friday, September 30, 2016

Gary Johnson for President

We, as quadrennially always, are faced with deciding who will lead our country in the next four years.
Primary voters for Democrats chose former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a rock-solid member of their establishment long expected to be nominated.  Those voting for Republicans collectively made a dissimilar decision.  They went with Donald Trump, a businessman who would not have made any commentator’s list of the 20 most likely nominees two years ago. 
Voters have real reasons to be discontented with these choices. 
The most common general objections to Clinton are not the problem.  Her use of private email servers for classified information, and her failure to admit it and work with instead of against investigators, was poorly judged, but minor.  Her lying after murders of Americans in Benghazi was bad behavior, but hardly heinous.  Her disposition, which often seems distasteful, is, for purposes of governance, a trivial matter.  However, because of her mainstream status, she is certain to be overly influenced by her party base, which has already come out in anti-jobs initiatives such as the $15-per-hour minimum wage she now backs.  Also, and more importantly, we are now finishing the second term of a president whose actions are similar to hers.  Barack Obama, when you factor out allegations and unjustified interpretations of his intentions, has governed as a slightly conservative Democrat; Clinton, as shown especially by her views on social issues and foreign policy, promises more of the same.  For a country stuck in legislative gridlock and apparently unable to address many of its worst problems, eight years of one philosophy is enough. 
As for Trump, he has disqualified himself over and over again.  I could write thousands of words recapping his reprehensible statements, but that has already been done well by others, so I only summarize that he has been bullying, undiplomatic, defamatory, hostile, violence-inciting, misogynistic, unapologetic, and much more.  The New York Times has maintained a list of different “people, places and things” he has insulted on Twitter alone, along with documentation – as of Thursday morning, it was up to 258.  He has shown little substance on issues, with almost nothing fleshed out or even consistent beyond immigration and trade policy.  He has shown that he is enamored with Vladimir Putin, Russian president and de facto dictator, to an extent certain to warp his international-relations judgment.  The amount and frequency of his lying has been almost unbelievably prolific, even for a politician.  His ability as a businessman, his claim to fame, is questionable at best, with thousands of lawsuits against him, at least four bankruptcies, a high rate of business failures, a documented record of employee abuse and supplier nonpayment, and, since he has singularly refused to release his tax returns, real doubts about how much he has actually earned.  He arrived shockingly unprepared for September’s debate.  He has repeatedly revealed a hair-trigger mentality totally unsuitable for anyone with the ability to launch nuclear weapons.  And, perhaps more disturbing than anything else about him, his inflammatory rhetoric and his lack of a clearly defined platform (he is no conservative) are unnervingly similar to Adolf Hitler’s; if you read Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here, about the rise of an American dictator through the political system, you will be stunned by the similarities between protagonist Buzz Windrip and Trump.  He contends only with 1908’s William Jennings Bryan as the worst major-party nominee in the latest two centuries, and in the privacy of the voting booth, nobody, except maybe his friends and family members, should choose him. 
Another candidate is worthy of mention.  Jill Stein of the Green Party offers a lot of ideas from the political left of Obama and Clinton.  She is earnest, well-spoken, and admirable in her own way, but is simply too extreme, with her plans such as eliminating all fossil-fuel use by 2030 not only unworkable but in the wrong direction for a country struggling with internal divisions and a permanent jobs crisis.  Against that, we could depend on Congress to keep her worst propositions in check.    
So what can we do?   
Into the gap, like a breath of fresh air, is Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson.  As befitting one with that ideology he chooses freedom over conservatism or liberality, and picks his positions accordingly.  There are weaknesses in this approach – for example, as I have written before, the jobs shortage causes critical damage to the practice and idea of free markets by causing too many people to have nothing to spend – but in general, it is successful.  On social issues, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and marijuana legalization, it is clear that conservatives are on the wrong side of history.  Remembering how my sister was denied one at the White Sox baseball bat day 50 years ago because she was a girl seems bizarre to me now – when our grandchildren hit middle age, they will think the same about gay couples once being denied the right to marry.  On economic issues, our national debt doubled during the previous Republican administration and is on track to double again during this Democratic one, to about $20,000,000,000,000 – while if that were presented balance-sheet style, with federal assets such as 85% of the land in Nevada offsetting it, it would not seem so scary, but it still seems out of control.  Almost no liberals seem aware that making workers more expensive is certain to cut demand for them.  There are many financial luxuries, from farm subsidies to the National Endowment for the Arts, which we simply cannot afford to cover with taxpayer’s money.
Johnson’s platform, posted in detail on, not only generally takes the best from the Democratic and Republican sides, but adds planks neither one has.  He advocates, and will work for, tax reform to reward “productivity, savings and investment.”  He stands for congressional term limits.  He wants to do what he and his running mate William Weld did in the states they governed, New Mexico and Massachusetts, to cut their unemployment, both absolutely and relative to others.  He would be better on one issue than any of the others, as “having served as a Governor of a border state” he knows that “solving immigration problems is not as easy as building a wall or simply offering amnesty.”  He would push for criminal justice reform, especially by reducing drug-related incarceration, and would turn a great federal expense into a large revenue source by “legalizing and regulating marijuana.”  He would keep abortion legal, and would not only allow more local discretion in school policy, but would eliminate the Department of Education.  He would avoid protectionism.  He has pledged to submit a balanced federal budget, as he and Weld did with their states.  More critical than any one of these stances is that, in order to succeed with them, he would be forced to be bipartisan by getting approval for his efforts from both sides.  It is clear to me that if Johnson had been nominated as a Republican, he would now be way ahead of Clinton and everyone else.              
We do have viable alternatives.  Of the four most prominent presidential candidates, three would not disgrace the office, and would, in the main, represent the country well.  It is reasonable to choose Clinton or Stein instead of Johnson.  As for opening up our choice to all four, if 2016 is not the year we should seriously consider those other than Democrats or Republicans, what one will be?  This time, it allows us to choose the best candidate, the choice of whom is clearer than it has been for several election cycles. 

Royal Flush Press endorses Gary Johnson for president.    

Friday, September 23, 2016

Robots Marching On, Adding to Efficiency, Offsetting Globalization, And, Yes, Cutting Jobs

These may be relatively good economic times, with official unemployment about as low as it can get during a permanent jobs crisis, but that hasn’t stopped advances in the implementation and theory of robotics.  What’s happened over the past five months?

In Financial Times on May 3rd, the title of Sam Fleming’s article, “Why robots are coming for US service jobs,” means it could contain only two words:  They’re cheaper.  Fleming addressed more than that, though, with a good rundown of positions susceptible to replacement by automatons, and correctly showed that the jobs now most at risk were white-collar and caregiving ones.  He also cited a McKinsey Global Institute study claiming that 40% of American workers had occupations in which half their hours went to tasks that could already, with current technology, be automated.  Another piece in the same publication that day, “Rise of the robots is sparking an investment boom,” showed that while venture capital investments there had to double in 2015 just to reach a still-puny $587 million, the entire market projects to reach $135 billion in three years.  That’s not as massive as it could be either, and both numbers are and will be exceeded by those for driverless vehicles.

Two days later, Financial Times continued its series by asking us to “meet the cobots,” automata designed to lighten loads for existing workers instead of replacing them.  Author Peggy Hollinger seemed to imply that, as a result, robots now won’t cost jobs.  This idea is nothing new; when I visited a Florida postal sorting center over 15 years ago, a large yellow one moved heavy packages around alongside dozens of human workers, and precipitated anything but hostile reactions, as our tour guide told us that “everyone likes Big Bird.”  When robots only assist, they serve as tools similar to computers, copiers, or even brooms, so there’s nothing special here on that count either.

On May 14th, Phil Torres weighed in in Salon with “Fear our new robot overlords:  This is why you need to take artificial intelligence seriously.”  He started with the Terminator movie series, which introduced me, for one, to the idea of autonomous goal-seeking devices automatically having potential problems, and showed how artificial general intelligence, or AGI, could, as happened in the first Terminator feature, destroy many or all humans if we fail at “making sure their values,” not just their objectives, “align with ours.”  This material is well worth reading, especially for those not yet familiar with it.

Another Financial Times article, May 16th’s “Legal firms unleash office automatons,” reported something old as if it were new.  Automated legal searches were contemporary enough for me to cite them five years ago in Work’s New Age, and while they are now getting better and more common, their changes seem only incremental.  The idea of “Uberisation,” or more work being done by lower-paid workers, is nothing fresh either, with at least a strong foothold in law long before that label would have been understood.

In Harvard Business Review, Vasant Dhar’s ambitious May 17th “When to Trust Robots with Decisions, and When Not To,” presented a grid of products and needs positioned by predictability (high = fighter drones and cataract surgery;  low = stock trading and effectiveness of online advertising) and cost per mistake (high = driverless cars and diabetes prediction; low = spam filtering and early education support).  Since the best areas for automated solutions are clearly those with high predictability and low cost per mistake, progress will move from those toward the other corner.  Dhar’s Decision Automation Map, showing this and more, is a fine tool, and he succeeded admirably at showing where we might best concentrate upcoming robotic and computer efforts.

On May 25th, Fox News published “Pizza Hut rolling out robot servers in Japan.”  They cost only $1,600 apiece, and offer “a more efficient dining experience” as well as paying for themselves remarkably quickly.  Such automata are also under consideration by Carls Jr. and McDonalds, to name only two fast-food chains, and will certainly spread widely, if they have as little as mediocre customer acceptance, as minimum wages increase.

The Economist, in June 4th’s “I’m afraid I can’t do that,” cited a Centre for European Economic Research working paper claiming that since relatively few entire jobs can be fully automated, we have “reasons to be less afraid about the march of the machines.”  The major flaw in this thinking is that great cost savings motivate employers to rearrange positions by concentrating hard-to-mechanize tasks in those jobs to be still held by humans.  It also makes the mistake of taking the past, where people in manufacturing positions easily found service jobs, as a proxy for the present, in which we know of no type of paid work capable of replacing them in turn.

Trevor Moss reported in the June 21st Wall Street Journal “Robots on Track to Bump Humans from Call-Center Jobs.”  Why not?  And it’s been happening for years – you see it when you call in with a problem and a robotic voice asks you several technical questions.  A decade or more ago, most companies moved what was called Tier 1 support, or preliminary and easy-to-fix problem-solving, to cheaper-labor countries, and now those responsibilities are increasingly being covered by machines.  There is no case that more and more sophisticated issues will not be handled, as time goes on, in the same way.

“Industrial robot sales hit record,” Financial Times pointed out June 22nd. Though worldwide sales reached only 248,000 last year, it is noteworthy that China, once known as a cheap-labor source, got a quarter of them.  The automotive, electrical, and electronics industries are the largest consumers, and we can safely bet that number will increase tenfold within as many years.  Robotic restaurant servers costing only the equivalent of $1,200 apiece are also arriving in that country, with high acceptance offsetting lower labor savings, as documented in The Wall Street Journal’s July 24th “In China, a Robot’s Place Is in the Kitchen.” 

Finally, Xerox released a list of 19 current and near-future robotic innovations.  They are robotic pharmacist, Japan’s robot hotel, digital nursing, robotic process automation, virtual customer service agents, self-flying planes, self-driving cars, driverless trains, digital barista, automated passport control, automatic translation, automatic report writing, legal work, Amazon’s “robot army,” robot security guard, the automated college professor, home automation, the robot bartender, and robot-assisted surgery.  You can read more about them at

After all this reporting of advancement, The Washington Post’s Robert J. Samuelson again told us, on August 17th, that “our robot panic is overblown.”  He again fell into traps by saying “lost jobs and destroyed industries give way, over time, to new industries and jobs” (unless they don’t), and “if robots cut costs, the savings have to go somewhere” (into the massive, stagnant pools of money held by the largest corporations and wealthiest individuals).  He partially redeemed himself by stating that “government’s main role is to maintain the conditions that make hiring profitable,” which, though incomplete, should be a worthy goal for both political parties, but in general, Samuelson, who I am certain does not personally invest only in stocks which have gone up in the past, should know better.

That’s all for now.  There will be more, in this area contending only with self-driving cars for the most press and the greatest effect on American employment.  I will continue to keep you up to date.    

Friday, September 16, 2016

Uber and Lyft Beyond Austin, and Beyond Human-Controlled Cars

On May 8th, unlicensed taxi companies Lyft and Uber were firmly stopped from operating unregulated in this large, politically moderate Texas city.  Since then they haven’t been far from the news, which for these companies, since they reached a million de facto employees last year, automatically constitutes important information about jobs.  What has come out over the past four months?

Only three days after the Austin election result, a Los Angeles Times editorial took one of my long-ago posted points about Uber and Lyft, that while drivers may gross respectable amounts they do not net nearly as much as true cabdrivers, and used it as the basis for concern about exploitation, with author David Horsey saying that getting rides from them would cause him to “feel morally compromised.”  I’m not sure that logically follows, but it’s a good thing for a major newspaper to reveal how little such work can actually pay; Horsey described a freelance writer trying Uber driving spending eleven hours taking in $118 before car expenses and “rideshare insurance.” 

On May 24th, we got news of similar Israeli company Gett receiving a $300 million investment from Volkswagen.  That is one of several partnerships which have recently formed on driverless vehicles.  The day after that, Jefferson Parish, just west of New Orleans, delayed voting on an ordinance to regulate Uber and Lyft – the same thing happened there the next month, leaving, per Baton Rouge’s Advocate, the companies’ operations in “legal limbo.”  At the same time, both firms threatened to stop serving the Chicago area if their drivers were subject to the same rules as those from taxi companies.  Such a measure there passed on June 17th, but Uber and Lyft have not left.

Next, from around the same time, a backed-up prediction, now seeming obsolete, “Why Uber and Lyft Will Have a Short Lifespan,” by Don Peppers in Inc.  That’s exactly what I thought, before those companies decided to join the looming self-driving trend instead of trying to lick it.  Yet he’s absolutely correct that they won’t have the corner on advantages such as easy hailing and computer dispatching forever. 

June 3rd brought a Wall Street Journal piece about Uber and Lyft piloting grocery delivery in Phoenix and Denver.  Although that’s hardly a new or innovative business idea, it may work, if several conditions are met.  Customers must be willing to pay the $7 to $10 fee the article mentions.  The companies cannot afford a dramatic initial promotion, such as waiving that charge, without being buried.  They will need supermarkets to pick and prepare the order, since they can’t do that for that amount.  Even then, if the effort is successful, other firms, including the store chains themselves, will be waiting to pounce.

A further consequence of the Austin vote, and a huge vulnerability in Uber and Lyft’s business model, hit the news June 10th.  All those drivers there, “thousands” of them, were correctly ruled employees instead of independent contractors, and so, when the two companies abruptly stopped doing business there, they ran afoul of a federal rule requiring firms with 100 or more on the payroll to give 60 days’ notice before large layoffs.  The former employees have filed two lawsuits, one against each, which rate to win and provide plenty of incentive for not skirting ethical business practice as well as the law.  The same effect has already come from another Uber setback, a San Francisco judgment penalizing them for firing drivers after obtaining unauthorized background reports.  Also, USA Today reported on August 18th that a rather larger lawsuit in the same city, brought by drivers in 2013 claiming that the company used their classification as contractors to deny them expense compensation, was still in litigation. 

That same firm has now lost another eastern European country, with a July 13th announcement that they were discontinuing business in Hungary, due to new laws they considered threatening to drivers’ safety.  On that continent it is already out of Bulgaria and is endangered in France, where they drew a June 800,000-euro fine for “operating an illegal car service.”

That brings us to veteran employment writer Rana Foroohar’s August 9th Financial Times piece, “Uberisation and the dangers of neo-serfdom.”  She pointed out that a stunning and depressing 35% of American workers now function as “freelancers, independent contractors or for multiple employers,” and described a growing pattern similar to Skid Row day-labor pools, “in which the lord shows up each day and says ‘I’ll take you, and you, and you.’”  As I mentioned in April, the vast majority of such working is an economic inferior good to usual careers, paying less than full-time minimum wage positions after considering irregularity and extra expenses.  However, the problem is not with these gig-economy arrangements, but with the permanent jobs crisis and the 18 million positions the United States is now short.

So where are Uber and Lyft going?  It is clear that their future is not in human-operated ridesharing, but in driverless vehicles.  They are as well positioned as any to put self-driving cars on normal roads – in fact, Uber’s Pittsburgh driverless-taxi trial started this week.  The chances are good that we will still be talking about Ubering from one place to another by mid-century.  However, that will not mean quite the same thing as now.  Between their emerging direction and their incessant, and usually justified, legal problems, they will not long have as many employees.  We will once again have more resources and fewer jobs.  For better or worse, that is what is still happening with, and to, America.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Self-Driving Cars Since The Famous Tesla Crash: A High-Speed Round-Up

As, per John Markoff of The New York Times, “in and around Silicon Valley, at least 19 commercial self-driving efforts are underway,” the topic of driverless vehicles continues to set publication proliferation records among jobs-related subjects.  I am looking at a stack of 29 articles from no fewer than 12 different publications, all within the past 73 days.  I won’t try to review all of them, which would be a waste of space for several reasons, but will summarize what has happened here, sorted into four major themes, since word of the first fatal self-driving mishap broke on June 30.

This crash took place May 7th in Williston, Florida, when a Tesla driver activated the car’s Autopilot feature, completely ignored what was happening on the road, and then died when his vehicle ran full speed into the side of an 18-wheel truck.  After almost three months of investigations (we’ll need to get faster here), and initially saying that the accident happened because the product did not correctly interpret “the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky,” the Tesla company determined that the problem was not that Autopilot failed to perceive that there was a large metal mass straight ahead, but that its braking system did not then stop the car.  In the meantime, Consumer Reports implored the company to block use of this feature while the drivers’ hands were off the wheel. 

A few observations here.  Apparently Autopilot, as well as being named aggressively enough to encourage drivers to, in the findings of another article, play Jenga, watch Harry Potter, and actually sleep, is in fact a beta release, meaning that it has not been fully tested.  If the linkage between its autonomous driving capability and its brakes is insufficient, it is in effect little more than cruise control, around since at least the 1960s and nothing any prudent driver would ever trust with full vehicle operation.  It is not, as I defined the levels in my July 1 post, a true Plane 2 feature, as drivers cannot disengage while it is operating.  Whether the actions above were reckless, appropriate given the name of the feature, or somewhere in between, and even though the cars’ manuals gave warnings, it is clear that Tesla dropped the ball here.  They will probably lose large lawsuits over the product, and will be required to back it off in some ways.  The broader ongoing issue will be to avoid excessively slowing down availability of automated driving products.  There will be more mishaps – in fact, on July 1 another Tesla crashed, rolling over on the Pennsylvania Turnpike without fatal injuries – and their liability here does not mean the maximum acceptable rate of accidents should be zero.

The second subtopic here is about company alliances and consortiums, which I predicted July 1 would ultimately produce these vehicles.  Later that same date, German automaker BMS AG, American chipmaker Intel, and self-driving Israeli software company Mobileye NV announced that they, together, expected to be producing self-driving cars of some autonomy level by 2021.  About three weeks ago, American ridesharing company Uber and Swedish car manufacturer Volvo announced combining to offer automated taxis, which will be on Pittsburgh roads this fall.  In good deference to their necessarily incomplete quality, they will be free, and at Plane 2 or Plane 3 (a driver still inside, but rarely taking the controls).  How this aggressive and possibly premature but fascinating experiment works, or fails, will tell us a lot about what we need to stay on my projected track of 20% Plane 2 United States vehicles by 2021 and 20% Plane 3 ones by 2025.  Uber has also acquired American driverless truck technology maker Otto, which gives it two consortium pieces on that front in-house.  Ford, now with potent production plans of its own, is working with Israeli computer-vision company Saips, has bought 75% of American lidar (radar based on laser beams – expect to see this term more and more) sensor manufacturer Velodyne, and put undisclosed amounts of money into American digital chart firm Civil Maps and American machine-vision concern Nirenberg Neuroscience.

The third theme concerns announced availability dates for various vehicle automation products.  A July 4 article said that Google “hopes” to market what might be called self-driving bumper cars, with 25-mile-per-hour maximums, “a heavy later of foam” on their fronts, and plastic windshields, in 2019.  Those would go all the way to Plane 5, or vehicles without direct human control; although I projected they would not reach 20% of American rolling stock until 2030, we could still reasonably have 0.1% in three years.  General Motors now plans on a 2017 offering of Super Cruise, an apparent Tesla Autopilot competitor, designed as a true Plane 2 product but functional only on highways which the company has mapped in detail.  Ford announced on August 16th offering large numbers of fully driverless cars, at Plane 5 or at least Plane 4 (remote human supervision of vehicles or groups of vehicles; my prediction 20% in USA by 2028), through a ridesharing company to be named by 2021.  And in four miles of Singapore streets, American company nuTonomy has zoomed ahead of Uber and Volvo by offering free experimental semi-driverless taxi service now.

The fourth article concentration is on other updates to issues I raised in my November 20th post.  A July 7th piece proposed that, like 16-year-old humans, new driverless technology pieces should be licensed – a sensible idea, especially if the turnaround time is much shorter than those government often perpetrates.  A second, on July 8th, reinforced the special need for road and other infrastructure improvement.  A third, also out July 7th, again raised the behavior issue, with Plane 2 drivers averaging 17 seconds, or a quarter of a mile at only 53 MPH, to retake control after the vehicle’s command to do so.  An August 18th article addressed one I haven’t seen since bringing it up in November, the threat of hacking, with a graphic example of a researcher stopping a self-driving car by issuing commands on his laptop.

As far as jobs go, my July projections on those, as with the percentage implementation dates, are still current.  Uber seems to be insisting that driverless vehicles will slash the number of privately owned cars, which seems unlikely in small towns and low-density suburbs and absurd in rural areas.  I’m still expecting 20% of American vehicles at Plane 2 by 2021, privately owned or not, with the world’s self-driving leaders there by 2018.  And eventually our terminology will change.  Per Ben Zimmer on August 26th, we may come to know of self-driving cars as just “cars,” and the ones we have now as… “meatmobiles.”  I leave it to you to propose other names for what were once known as “horseless carriages” – in the meantime, enjoy watching the progress of what might, arguably of course, be the most exciting, and most promising, area of technical growth we have seen since Apollo.