Friday, August 18, 2017

Opioids and Unfilled Work Positions in Middle America: What Would Help?

There are many Americans foreigners rarely see.  Away from the cities and coasts, with lifestyles often much more modest, they like things those from other countries, and not a few in ours, simply don’t fathom.  How many other fully developed nations have masses of ordinary citizens with affinity toward such as fundamentalist Christianity, rodeos, tractor pulls, guns, our style of country music, and their large vehicles?  How can they be against abortion, and remain skeptical about climate change?  And why on Earth did they, and do they still, support Donald Trump?  They are rarely black, so are seldom invoked in discussions of “diversity,” and often share the same English, Scottish, or Irish last names with wealthier and more urban Americans, but they differ much more meaningfully from those from Silicon Valley, midtown Manhattan, or the Seven Sisters campuses than do those with different racial backgrounds in the likes of Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Detroit.  Articles in The New York Times and other publications often show a complete lack of comprehension as to why these citizens of our country, with roots going back hundreds of years, think as they do. 

These people, who might constitute the center of America, are, as a group, in bad shape.  Their unemployment has long been high, with industries in their regions, such as coal mining, becoming less common and much less labor intensive.  Average incomes and out-of-poverty rates in their towns and counties still badly lag.  And, over the past few years, a scourge has reached them:  opiate abuse.  
   
Over the past few months, three articles describing the effect of this extra use of prescription drugs on work opportunities, which many in these parts have historically valued as much as Winchesters or Johnny Cash.  May’s Atlantic featured Alana Semuels’s “All the Men Here are Either on Drugs or Unemployed,” which painted a picture, with stories and statistics, of masses of one sex falling away from being able to support their families or even themselves.  In Pulse, July 26th’s “The opioid crisis is creating a fresh hell for America’s employers” described the problems businesses are having filling jobs when many seeking them are using medical chemicals recreationally.  CNN’s “This Ohio factory owner says she has jobs but few sober applicants,” by Alexandra King on July 29th, focused on one specific location in an 8,000-population town in one of the most-affected states.  Overall, the problem of impaired jobseekers resembles the alleged “skills gap,” in which potential workers are too often unsuited for positions, but has more validity.   

Long before large numbers of people exercised the abuse potential of the likes of Percocet and Fentanyl, there was the permanent jobs crisis, which, despite low official unemployment, has been running since the early 1970s.  As I made a case for in 2012’s Work’s New Age, otherwise possible employees in our country have responded to the lack of hiring by choosing lifestyles incompatible with most paid positions, which has had the effect of preventing them from working when the opportunity has presented itself.  That may well be the case here also, with many becoming addicted when jobs were rare enough to discourage the bulk of those needing work from even seeking it.  But we don’t know, and some who wanted to be able to handle jobs were seduced by the power of these drugs. 

As well, we need to ask a question about the connection between opioids and work performance.  Not only do any number of people with bodily pain use them on the job with no presumed ill effects, but the connection between substance abuse and ability to complete work tasks is not always clear.  While it is obvious to me that those who are impaired, for whatever reason, should not be using dangerous machines, they may not have problems in, say, offices.  It is also demonstrably untrue that using mood-altering chemicals automatically reduces quality and quantity of work.

So what can I recommend for employers facing this problem?  First, they must differentiate between drug use, such as marijuana during off-hours, with little or no effect on work performance, which should be disregarded, and that, such as workday alcohol or very heavy opiate consumption by drivers or drill press operators, which could be deadly.  Second, those hiring can do what most must when faced with what seems like a worker shortage:  pay more.  Third, if as expressed in these articles a lot of employees start jobs clean but have trouble staying that way, companies can combine freer hiring with low starting pay and regular drug testing, with substantial raises after some time, such as six months, has passed.  Fourth, without hiding behind insincere allegations of zero tolerance, they should publicize and honestly state their policies, so that those struggling with opiate and other addictions can see what they would need to do to get back to work. 


Economics applies to everyone.  Those different from us, even if educated less on average, still respond to incentives.  The employees are out there – even the co-owner of the Ohio factory featured above admitted that 60% of applicants “qualified to be welders, machinists, and crane operators” were clean – but as always, job shortage or not, managers need to not only make it worth workers’ while but to be honest with them.  That will keep the opioid and jobs crises as separate as possible. 

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Google Memo: What Could It Mean Someday?

This past week, we began the largest corporate culture brouhaha since Amazon’s “bruising workplace” article was published in The New York Times two years ago.  It started with a 10-page memo, titled “Google’s Ideological Echo Chamber,” sent by 28-year-old company software engineer and Harvard master’s degree holder James Damore.  The missive, described since as “anti-diversity” and a “screed” (Gizmodo, which published it at http://gizmodo.com/exclusive-heres-the-full-10-page-anti-diversity-screed-1797564320, and Salon), “inflammatory” (The Verge), and a “manifesto” (The Verge, yahoo.com, and Salon), made a case for Google to not be concerned about its staff being 69% male.  The piece, sent internally, said most if not all “population level differences” were because “men and women biologically differ in many ways,” naming attributes which “women, on average, have more” of.  He added material on other related subjects, such as:  the pressures faced by men, such as being “still very much tied to the male gender role,” the existence of “swaths” of them “without support,” and being compelled by a “higher drive for status,” causing many to accept positions which “require long, stressful hours that may not be worth it if you want a balanced and fulfilling life,” which he maintained was something women generally sought more; naming Google’s “discriminatory practices,” specifically “programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race, a high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates, hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates,” and “reconsidering any set of people if it’s not “diverse” enough, but not showing that same scrutiny in the reverse direction”; an equating of liberals’ rejection of “biological differences between people” with conservatives’ denial of evolution and climate change; and requests that Google “stop alienating conservatives” and “have an open and honest discussion about the costs and benefits of our diversity programs,” which, if they were intended to increase the share of female workers, were “as misguided and biased as mandating increases for women’s representation in the homeless, work-related and violent deaths, prisons, and school dropouts.” 

Whew.

After Damore’s memo went public, Google CEO Sundar Pichai sent a response, on Saturday, saying that, although “we strongly support the right of Googlers to express themselves,” and that “much” of Damore’s writing was “fair to debate,” nonetheless “portions” of it “violate(d) our Code of Conduct and cross(ed) the line by advancing harmful gender stereotypes in our workplace.”  He also announced he was shortening his just-beginning “family vacation,” “as clearly there’s a lot more to discuss as a group.”  Although Pichai’s response was cautious and noncommittal, it showed great concern under the surface, and two days later, on Monday, Damore was fired.   Also on Monday, Pichai announced a Thursday all-employee meeting to discuss the issues Damore brought up, which Pichai cancelled that morning, saying some workers felt they would be endangered if they spoke up.  The CEO, as The New York Times put it, “said the company would find other ways to gather and engage employees on the subject in the coming days.”  As we can see, the subject is not only far from closed, but is just getting started.

Commentators are now, as I write this Thursday evening, weighing in.  So what can I add?

First, almost regardless of the merits of what Damore wrote, Google was well within its rights to fire him.  As the expression would more accurately go in the corporate world, the squeaky wheel gets replaced.  Goring sacred cows, which Damore did multiple times in a memo for which he had no reasonable expectation of limited distribution, can be deadly to careers.  While I was not dismissed, my 11-year upward trajectory at AT&T’s information technology unit ended with reactions to a mail message I sent to my group explaining why an excessively beloved software package we used was in fact poor quality and destructive to our business objectives.  It is common knowledge, cynical or not, that high-level managers at large companies will say they value independent thought right up the time they fire you for it, and Damore, if in fact he wanted to keep his job, should have been aware of that.      

Second, the foundation of Damore’s work was a series of interesting and reasonable but debatable assertions:  that sex differences are “universal across human cultures,” “often have clear biological causes and links to prenatal testosterone,” and are “exactly what we would predict from an evolutionary psychology perspective”;  that women, on average, “have more… openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas… a stronger interest in people rather than things… extraversion expressed as gregariousness rather than assertiveness… higher anxiety, lower stress tolerance,” “are more cooperative,” and are “more agreeable,” and “humans are generally biased toward protecting females,” which, in part, “likely evolved because males are biologically disposable”; that it is “culturally universal” that “for heterosexual romantic relationships, men are more strongly judged by status and women by beauty“; and that “conservatives tend to be higher in conscientiousness.”  Each one of these could be, and probably has already been, the subject of multiple individual books.  Accordingly, having sources, which Damore claimed but did not include, even of successfully replicated first-rate research, is not enough to make these propositions clearly correct.  With that said, these ideas all have real merit, and nobody should fear at least considering them.   

Third, in understanding the situation here we need to avoid two related logical gaffes.  One is the assumption that Damore and those agreeing with him think that all women and men fit the tendencies he mentioned, when, in fact, he is saying that the sexes form two overlapping bell curves.  The other is to forget that when these attributes differ at all between entire populations, they cause differences in overall mean values, which do not describe everyone accurately.  If the average annual income of Americans under four feet tall is $2,000, because maybe 95% are children, that is insufficient reason for the remaining 5% to claim that low figure means they are being discriminated against.

Fourth, although we can argue about the extent, it is absurd to say that women, with different body structures, different brain characteristics, and the only sex which can get pregnant and give birth, are identical to men.

Fifth, even if as Damore claimed Google management implicitly believes that women’s disadvantages are due to sex-role stereotypes, many if not most cannot viably be retrained.  Google exists to seek maximum profits from the software business, and needs the best workers, not those who might have been better if enormous social patterns were different.

Sixth, reverse discrimination is discrimination.  Our choices of prohibiting, condoning, or encouraging it do not alter this statement’s validity.  


Seventh, if there are any overall, average differences at all between groups of people, equality of opportunity will not produce equality of results.  That is an iron fact we need to accept.  James Damore has, I hope, put us on the way.    

Friday, August 4, 2017

July: Another Good Jobs Month, But Latent Demand for Work Rises Again – AJSN Now At 17.6 Million

According to the prognosticators of record, July was supposed to be another winner for employment, and it was.  We added another 209,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, almost matching June’s 222,000.  Seasonally adjusted unemployment returned to its May 4.3% level, and the two measures of how common it is for Americans to be working, the labor force participation rate and the employment-population ratio, each matched June’s 0.1% gain to return to their April levels and end concern about May’s beginning a trend.  Average hourly earnings, for the first time in three months, increased more than inflation, to reach $26.36.

The other measures were flat or slightly down.  The adjusted number of unemployed Americans stayed at 7.0 million.  The count of those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time positions while seeking ones with longer hours, stayed at 5.3 million.  The number of long-term jobless, or those without work for 27 weeks or longer, stepped up 100,000 to 1.8 million, and the unadjusted unemployment rate gained 0.1% to reach 4.6%. 

The American Job Shortage Number or AJSN, which shows in one figure how many more positions could be quickly filled if all knew they were easy to get, shrugged everything off and increased a mostly but not entirely seasonal 154,000, as follows:


July’s gain was essentially all due to higher official unemployment, which rose 191,000 over June’s.  Otherwise, the categories of marginal attachment above changed little, with none adding or subtracting more than 20,000 fillable jobs.  The AJSN’s 766,000 improvement over a year before was much the same story, with Bureau of Labor Statistics-defined joblessness responsible for 743,000 of that. 

A simple month, a simple report.  The positives clearly outweigh the modest negatives, and, although progress is sketchy outside that 209,000 payroll gain, we don’t need much more to call these relatively good times.  We’ll continue watching.  As for July, the turtle, once again, took a small step forward. 


Friday, July 28, 2017

One-Off Responses to Nine Weeks of One-Off Employment Article Topics

Some jobs-related topics don’t get as much attention as others.  But, as we will see, that doesn’t mean they are unworthy of it.

The New York Times May 11th editorial “An Invitation to Wage Theft” rightfully condemned a passed House bill named the “Working Families Flexibility Act,” an Orwellian name for a proposed law that would allow employers, though only with employee permission, to compensate workers for overtime with paid time off at their convenience, possibly over a year later.  As well as damaging those hoping for hours off during their regular shifts by making them elusive, the bill attacks two solid principles of overtime:  that employers pay for it when it occurs, and that it be covered at time-and-a-half.  We don’t need precedents against those, even if they are named invitingly.

Two days later, the same newspaper published Conor Dougherty’s “Signing Away the Right to Get a New Job,” on the proliferation of noncompete clauses for workers ranking far below top executives.  In one sense, it is understandable that more employees be required to agree to these terms at hiring, since lower-level positions more often involve proprietary information, but these constraints have clearly got out of hand.  Many such required agreements, especially those that, per the article, “cover general knowledge as well,” should be banned, and others, when employers attempt legal action to enforce them, should be sent to arbitration before expensive court proceedings, which management is better able to finance.  There is a night-and-day difference between a CEO giving away trade secrets and a construction worker adding improved work practices to his accumulated career knowledge, and the laws should reflect that.

Robert J. Samuelson, in “Globalization’s ill effects have been wildly exaggerated” (The Washington Post, May 14th) showed that he understood that subject better than he did the significance of robots.  It is a good two-page case against protectionism, which has recently become more fashionable in countries where the people should know better.  Points he made included “trade has contributed substantially to the rise of American living standards since World War II,” “foreign competition and technology also force US firms to lower costs and improve reliability,” and “trade is only a small part of overall job displacement, no more than 10 percent… Other causes include automation, technological obsolescence and recessions.”  We may be heading into a protectionist era, and this article shows, effectively, why that would be bad.

In “What If Companies Managed People as Carefully as They Manage Money?” (Harvard Business Review, May 24th), Eric Garton proposed the sort of thing I have described, though not in print, as “a novel (expletive) idea.” I don’t agree that “today’s scarcest resource is your human capital,” when we are over 17 million jobs short and innumerable businesspeople and commentators are confusing disinclination to train workers or pay market wages with a “skills shortage,” but organizations, especially large ones, have long been pathetically bad at assessing worker potential.  Garton suggested using metrics such as his “productive power index,” along with critically judging the value of meetings, breaking down how people actually spend working time, and, though easier said than done, identifying and rewarding “difference-making talent.”  This article is a starting point – how about making employee ability measurement the next business fad?

Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times, one of the most perceptive business writers around, may have jumped the gun in “Amazon’s Move Signals End of Line for Many Cashiers” (June 17th).   Sure, we can, as she suggested, imagine robots handling store customer service and items purchased being sent to them later, but delivery, as companies seem to need to rediscover all the time, is expensive, and will not be viable for most of the products sold by the acquiree in this article, Whole Foods.  It is also wrong to say that the service sector, which has been losing jobs to automation for decades now, will suffer from that “next,” or that “imagining the future is an act of science fiction,” when it is more like judicious projection.  And although “Amazon said it had no plans to lay off Whole Foods workers or use Amazon Go technology to automate cashiers’ jobs,” such may be announced at any time, and it is quite possible that Amazon will destroy that company by turning it into a testbed for their mechanized and semi-mechanized efforts.  After all, nobody should be so na├»ve as to think that Amazon is in the process of spending $13.4 billion so that it can go into the organic grocery business.

In a different area of change, Kai-Fu Lee told us about “The Real Threat of Artificial Intelligence,” in the June 24th New York Times.  I have long thought that “A.I.,” for all the attention it has received, is actually only algorithmic, and Lee said that is indeed still the case:  “At the moment, there is no known path from our best A.I. tools (like the Google computer program that recently beat the world’s best player of the game of Go) to “general” A.I. – self-aware computer programs that can engage in common-sense reasoning, attain knowledge in multiple domains, feel, express and understand emotions, and so on.”  Until we can quantify and precisely define such knowledge areas as intuition, A.I. products will remain “tools, not a competing form of intelligence.”  Lee’s “real threat” is A.I.’s effect on jobs, on which he weighed in and offered his views on possible solutions, generally good but, as always for this subject, open to debate.

Next, “A programmer figured out how to automate his job and work 2 hours a week – but he’s not sure it’s ethical” (Julie Bort, businessinsider.com, July 3rd).  Wow.  The story is about an information technology worker, identified as male but not named, who in effect developed scripts to do his job, and has not only kept his employer in the dark but has been “deliberately introducing a few random bugs into his work “to make it look like it’s been generated by a human.”” My vote is for “ethical,” as it is his company that is responsible for having jobs that could be so easily automated, maintaining unawareness of (as have so many others) telecommuting abuses, and managing its employees.  However, if there are legal or career consequences from what he is doing, he must take them.

Basic information that we should know but probably don’t was the highlight of “How the Growth of E-Commerce Is Shifting Retail Jobs,” written by Robert Gebeloff and Karl Russell and published in The New York Times on July 6th.  While employment in that area is up 334% since 2002, with its huge growth mostly offset by its relative lack of labor intensity, it is now generating only 8.4% of American retail sales, and in terms of the number of new jobs, its 178,000 gain is dwarfed by one of 841,000 in “warehouse clubs and other.”  Such positions are concentrated in larger cities, with the share of e-commerce jobs in “small metro areas and rural counties” just over half of their portion of overall retail positions.


More areas I haven’t mentioned for a while, specifically guaranteed income and 3D printing, have also been getting modest press, and will, at least later this year, get their share on this blog as well.  For now, though, expect the most active areas of robots and driverless vehicles to get the most.  If you want to hear about some other aspects of American jobs, though, please let me know.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Driverless Vehicles and Driving Jobs: Our July 2017 Forecast, And Why

Since a year ago, when I released my first look at when automated technology would reach certain saturation points, and at the number of taxi and truck positions, the field, its regulation, its related developments, and people’s reactions to it, along with, consequently, my interpretation of how it will fall out, have all moved along.

First, it is clear that autonomous vehicles will not be dependent on infrastructure improvements.  Although our president talks every so often about the need for large projects there, we’re not seeing much action from either him or our elected representatives.  In the meantime, to some extent as a result, the emphasis of almost all of the development work being done on driverless cars assumes they will need to interpret their environments themselves, with help coming from other vehicles instead of from roadside and related technology. 

Second, the United States is now way out in front at developments in this field, with the largest efforts centering around American companies, American testing grounds, and the cooperation of American cities.  It seems likely that we will lead the world’s way here.  That was made even clearer by serious international political problems, which do not rate to end soon, impeding the country which could have been, all around, more suited for progress here than any other – Qatar. 

Third, autonomous 18-wheel trucks, which can be sent in convoys in the setting best fitting driverlessness, expressways, now look like they will be on the road for production sooner than we expected.  The only real metaproblem they have is people’s fear (imagine the movie Duel with 20 of them), which, though, will eventually subside.

Fourth, as I predicted, capable-seeming consortia are forming, and have lately added a new category of partner with expertise at managing large numbers of vehicles, rental car companies.  We will surely see the likes of bitter breakups, Ford-against-GM-caliber lawsuits, and perhaps alliance components defecting to others for the right price.  Yet, in contrast with July 2016, all know that no company, or even pair of companies, can get it done by themselves. 

Fifth, in general, governments have done the right thing by working constructively with organizations developing this technology, and have been unexpectedly restrained about throwing up roadblocks.

Sixth, for consistency with others I am now using the National Highway Safety Traffic Administration’s levels of autonomous driving.  With the exception that I believe there will be a stage during which multiple driverless vehicles will be loosely controlled by remote human operators, the NHSTA scheme is quite similar to the one I developed.  For definitions of the levels they use, you can find a good summary article, along with a link to the original NHSTA document, at http://www.techrepublic.com/article/autonomous-driving-levels-0-to-5-understanding-the-differences/.

Given all that, here is our new chart:


Continue to follow the Work’s New Age blog to keep you current on the progress of driverless vehicles, and its effect on work opportunities.  We expect many, many more updates, along with a new forecast of the above next summer.

Friday, July 7, 2017

June Employment: Some Improvements, But Per the AJSN We’re Now 17.5 Million Jobs Short

I didn’t know what to expect from this morning’s Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data.  The publicized forecasts, which have been getting less and less accurate, called for 178,000 net new nonfarm payroll positions, which is good, but there were disturbing trends popping up last month.  June, though, was better than anyone seemed to expect on the most important fronts. 

Those new positions came in at 222,000, about 90,000 more than our growing population, now over 326 million, can absorb.  The employment-population ratio and the labor force participation rate, the best indicators of how common it is for Americans to actually be working, each recovered half of their 0.2% May drops, and are now at 60.1% and 62.8% respectively.  The count of long-term jobless, those out for 27 weeks or longer, held steady at 1.7 million. 

The other numbers, however, were worse.  The adjusted unemployment rate was up 0.1% to 4.4%, and the unadjusted one rose a mainly but not completely seasonal 0.4% to 4.5%.  Those working part-time for economic reasons, or holding on to less than full-time opportunities while looking thus far unsuccessfully for those, grew 100,000 to 5.3 million.  Average private nonfarm payroll wages were again up only 3 cents per hour and less than inflation to reach $26.25.  Latent demand for work also increased more than seasonally – the American Job Shortage Number, or AJSN, which shows how many more positions could be filled if all knew that getting one was easy and routine, rose over 700,000 to reach almost 17.5 million, as follows:


Since the AJSN is not seasonally adjusted, its increase, given that many more people are working in a typical May than such a June, is not as significant as it seems.  However, while the AJSN is now 665,000 lower than a year before, it had dropped 845,000 between the two most recent Mays.  Its improvement since June 2016 is almost exactly explained by the 900,000 drop in official unemployment, when partially offset by the 700,000 more American-citizen expatriates.  In this past year, the number of those claiming no interest in working has gone up over 700,000, and a surprising 954,000 more are in the armed services, in institutions, or off the grid, but the latent employment demand gain they represent was offset by reductions in several smaller categories made up of people more likely to work.

Overall, how good a month was it?  Despite the preponderance of worsening metrics, we are happy with this morning’s findings.  The 222,000 net new jobs is probably the most important figure, and the participation and employment ratios reversed what could have been a disturbing trend.  In the short-term, we don’t know where American employment is going, but the turtle, as has often been his wont these past few years, took a modest step forward.     

Friday, June 30, 2017

Driverless Vehicles - Where Are We Now? – Part 2

One problem with writing on autonomous vehicles is that the topic can be so hot, with information pouring out so quickly, that I can write week after week without finishing it.  However, I will continue with my plan for summarizing and interpreting the June articles, though my stack now contains 16 of them. 

The first is Billy Duberstein’s and The Motley Fool’s June 3rd “Everything You Need to Know About Self-Driving Cars (But Were Afraid to Ask),” a good summary mentioning LIDAR, radar, and another car-autonomy-characteristic level scheme.  We stay on the business side with “G.M. Wants to Drive the Future of Cars That Drive Themselves” (The New York Times, June 4th), in which Bill Vlasic shows how General Motors, not previously on the technology’s front lines, is now moving money from other-country efforts to this cause.  Two days later, according to Mike Isaac in the same publication, Lyft, now adding software maker nuTonomy to its driverless partnerships, while using an approach “different from Uber’s,” is still “behind others.”  Its CEO Logan Green was quoted as saying “we don’t think there will be a single player that will win the whole autonomous vehicle game” – that is correct, but there may well be one consortium winner.

While reading John Markoff’s June 7th “A Guide to Challenges Facing Self-Driving Car Technologists,” also in The New York Times, I wondered if it hadn’t aged for some time before publication.  Still, it named six areas of technical concern, with the more original ones being “the ability to respond to spoken commands or hand signals from law enforcement or highway safety employees” and “detecting which small object on the roadway must be avoided,” which is not routine even for experienced drivers and will take a lot of iterative work, unless they simply avoid everything not flat.  The problem of “driving safely despite unclear lane markings,” in the news recently, though, cannot fall on the roads themselves.  The same day, author, and source yielded “Robot Cars Can’t Count on Us in an Emergency,” which told us that Google’s effort there was now focused on vehicles that cannot be driven – in other words, at a higher level than will first be implemented by others – before discussing “over-trust,” the valid concern that people, when needed to take over driving, won’t be ready.  An Audi A8-version luxury car, with self-driving expressway capability including notification that the driver must take over within a sensible 8 to 10 seconds, will be released next month, and will serve as a good trial subject.

Going back to corporate moves, Fox Business published two pieces, credited to Associated Press on June 13th and Reuters on June 15th respectively, “GM raises output of self-driving Bolts, boosts test fleet” and “Uber’s trucking ambitions on lower gear after Otto deal.”  They are almost self-explanatory, with General Motors claiming the title of the first company to “mass-produce self-driving vehicles” with a run of 130, and, with that, the statement from Cox Automotive senior director of content that this company is “the furthest along” in both their partnerships and their technical progress, followed by Uber’s latest bumbling move, plowing the Otto name under in favor of their main, badly tainted one, and their threat to prematurely implement automated 18-wheelers.  If Uber goes out of business, nobody will be able to say they did it quietly.  The same site offered Matthew Rocco’s “Avis scores Waymo deal, Hertz said to work with Apple on self-driving cars” (June 26th), showing that the major rental companies are also getting involved, including Avis soon offering such vehicles to “select customers in Phoenix.” 

On the legal front, we learned that “Texas explicitly allows driverless car tests” (John Fingas, Yahoo Finance, June 17th), if these vehicles, eminently reasonably, “have to obey existing traffic laws and carry insurance,” record video, and take on liability.  In case we didn’t know already, the “driver killed in Tesla self-driving car crash ignored warnings, NTSB reports” (Nathan Bomey, USA Today, June 20th) – in fact 13 of them, both visual and auditory – “and took no braking, steering or other actions.”  Now, I hope, we can retire discussion about this highly nonrepresentative event, with the lesson that driver-error fatalities will be possible for decades to come. 

The Wall Street Journal published two pieces on the effects of autonomous vehicles.  “Your Next Car May Be a Living Room on Wheels” (Chester Dawson, June 19th) opened our eyes to the massive changes and innovations we will see once internal car spaces need not focus on accommodating drivers.  Beyond storing passengers, we will have the potential to do about anything with them, especially if seat belts become unnecessary, and cars will have the capability to change these spaces from, say, TV-watching dens to conference rooms to bedrooms.  Late in the century, driverless safety may be so improved that we won’t even care about windows, leading to, along with the possibilities of vehicle sizes everywhere from smaller than Smart cars to larger than buses, great car-interior diversity.  The other piece, “The End of Car Ownership” (Tim Higgins, June 20th), offered a previously written misleading idea that cheaper taxis and autonomous vehicles forming “the majority of transportation in urban cities with temperate weather” will make all cars communal, and the expected but already publicized idea that auto companies will offer on-demand transportation packages.  Higgins also mentioned the coming different use of car interiors, but did not seem to recognize that having custom ones will increase, not decrease, ownership.

We got caught up, somewhat, with the government side in two June 25th USA Today pieces.  In “Regulators scramble to stay ahead of self-driving cars,” Nathan Bomey and Thomas Zambito told us that “more than 50 bills have been introduced in 20 states over the last several months providing some degree of regulation,” mostly in the South, Southwest, and across the Canadian border.  The need for states to continue regulating “driver behavior,” and the federal government to maintain standards for “testing” and “crash liability” are clear, but not “design requirements,” and all must be aware that what will be happening with autonomous vehicles in five years will not be the same as in 50.  Overall, governments have, thus far, struck a good midpoint.  In the three-page second, “States get ready for the self-driving car revolution,” author Marco della Cava gave a book’s worth of quotations, propositions and assertions, ranging from the intriguing but debatable “this is as challenging a position as it was when we went from horses to cars” to the misguided “the most critical upgrade amounts to making sure the lines on our 4 million miles of roads are solid” (many of which are gravel, of which, as the article itself points out, 60,000 miles are in Michigan alone), and the opinion that we need “a national vision for autonomous vehicles” (way, way too soon for that, and governments will know the least).  While sensors that communicate traffic and weather information are valuable, it is Sisyphusian for the burden of driverlessness to be put on the external environment.  At the same time, “cities vie to become hubs of self-driving technology” (also June 25th in USA Today), with Austin (highly appropriate in an interesting way, since it would not tolerate Uber), Columbus, Detroit, Nashville, Reno, Phoenix, Pittsburgh (watch out for that Pittsburgh left!), and the Silicon Valley area leading the way.

Last is an attempt at a high-level autonomous vehicle summary, June 25th’s “Transport’s coming upheaval,” from Cyrus Radfar in Yahoo Finance.  It paired driverless technology with Hyperloop, Elon Musk’s “new form of terrestrial travel using pod-like vehicles traveling over 700 mph in near-vacuum tubes,” which, while having potential, is not being pursued as intensely and extensively.  Radfar mainly summarized the progress in the field, but, strangely, concluded that it will not cut employment, thinking, for example, that repurposing some parking lots will be (indefinitely?) labor-intensive.  He gets points, though, for saying that more efficient transportation will in effect expand the coastal areas, which have historically had much of the population and prosperity, further. 


Next week’s post will be dedicated to the June federal jobs report.  On July 14th, you can look for more driverless car reporting, a conclusion, and updates of last year’s projected timelines on its implementation and its employment effects.