The long, hard road to progress

The long, hard road to progress


You need to travel downtown for a face-to-face. Since private automobiles are banned — what used to be your driveway is now your prize-winning organic vegetable garden — you dial in the coordinates of where you need to be on your watch, and, within minutes, an autonomous vehicle, or AV (geek-speak for a car without a real-person driver), arrives. It’s already calculated the most efficient way to your destination, and will continuously monitor and re-calibrate your route if conditions change.

If you’re not filling your hands-free ride time preparing for your meeting, you’ll be able to observe how much your world has changed. Because AVs are smarter and more efficient than your average human, there are no more traffic tie-ups, signal lights, wide lanes, twinned highways, on-street parking, off-street parking, parking garages… All that freed-up real estate has been turned into green space, bike paths, life-living land.

Because eliminating human drivers also eliminated human error and folly, there’s no need for police traffic patrols. No accidents, so fewer medical traumas, no skyhigh car insurance premiums…

What will happen to the half-million-plus long-haul truckers, shorthaul deliverers, couriers, taxi drivers, bus operators, not to count all those who feed off the transportation system — highway patrol officers, emergency services responders, automobile salespeople, insurance brokers and parking lot attendants — whose jobs will no longer exist?

It’s difficult not to just sit back and enjoy your ride into Brian Flemming’s no-longer-fanciful, Jetson-esque AV future. (See: Let’s Do Lunch)

Enjoy it or not, however, that future is bearing down on us like a runaway 18-wheeler. (Speaking of which, Mercedes Benz is currently test-driving driver-less trucks on highways in Nevada.) According to a report Flemming co-authored last year, major automakers will be selling us fully autonomous cars in less than 10 years.

But Flemming is not simply trumpeting the future. He is also sounding an alarm.

In part, it’s about infrastructure thinking. This past summer, the Nova Scotia government issued a request for proposals. The goal: raise $1.5 billion for a “once-in-a-generation set of mega-projects,” including twinning eight sections of 100-series highways. But what if those projects won’t be drive-ready for another 15 years and will have been built to last 30 years after that? What if we no longer need that capacity? What then?

Perhaps socially more significant, what will happen to the half-million-plus long-haul truckers, shorthaul deliverers, couriers, taxi drivers, bus operators, not to count all those who feed off the transportation system — highway patrol officers, emergency services responders, automobile salespeople, insurance brokers and parking lot attendants — whose jobs will no longer exist?

“Let me remind you of a few of the occupations that have disappeared in my long lifetime,” Flemming recently reminded a truckers’ convention. “Elevator operators, gas station attendants, movie theatre ushers, telephone switchboard operators, grocery-store-bag takeout people, drugstore delivery boys, linotype operators, door-to-door salespeople of everything from encyclopedias to insurance, key-punch operators and many others too numerous to list.”

Some of those changes — most of them, in fact — have ultimately been positive.

I will never recover the years I lost to lunch-hour bank line-ups waiting to deposit a cheque, or pay a bill, or get cash. I am grateful for 24-hour ATMs, electronic bill payments and — my most recent discovery — the unexpected thrill of using my cellphone camera to deposit a cheque.

And yet, I also know this “progress” comes at a huge cost — especially to bank employees but others too, like postal workers, whose lives have been disrupted by change. I know too that neither the corporations that employed them nor the society that benefited from their labour has done nearly enough to help the displaced retrain and transition to the new world order. Meanwhile, bank profits have never been fatter.

There are winners — and losers.

So who should be responsible for managing, and paying for, transition at a time when change — much of it driven by technology and its exponentially ever expanding possibilities, not to forget the bottom-line imperatives of those promoting the shinier and newer — has become the thumping, insistent accompaniment to our lives?

It’s a question we need to answer. Before the future runs us over. Again.

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