The new year's vibe gives me the perfect excuse to take the liberty to have a look into the future. As I'm not an air monger, I'm not gifted with supernatural powers and I always have a big bag of pragmatism and criticism at hand, we'll have to do it with quite reasonable building blocks for this fortune-telling session.

Self-driving cars, a couple of years ago, they sounded like pure science fiction. Today they are a fact. It is no longer an if-question; it has become a when-question. Let's not go into details, so let's say anything between 2 and 20 years. 

If you've never have seen a self-driving car, Google it. Or maybe first, get from under that rock! You might think they are a hoax. It could be like that moon-landing thing. The only significant difference here is that multiple companies and institutes are competing in the same deception. If one day it appears to be a hoax, it would be at least Oscar-winning material.

Self-driving cars, I think it would be lovely, to no longer have to focus on the traffic. Just enjoy the scenery, read a book, take a nap, chat, drink a good glass of wine. How wonderful would that be?

However, this story is not about me nor my drinking habits. The impact of this step in robotisation is much more significant. If you don't need a person to drive a vehicle, you can create quite some unemployment. 

Let's try to quantify that. In Belgium, about 100.000 people [1] worked in the transport sector in 2018, according to Febetra (Federation of Belgian Transport companies). Roughly two-thirds of those people are truck drivers, that is 60.000 people [2] - a decent-sized city. Figures of the Belgian Federation of Taxis (Nationale Groepering van Ondernemingen met Taxi- en Locatievoertuigen met chauffeur) show that there are 10.000 registered taxis in Belgium. That means at least 10.000 taxi drivers - a small town. The Flemish public transport company, De Lijn, notes in their 2018 year report 5300 bus drivers [3] - another village.

Enough unemployed people to start a new country as this is shift is not only valid for the transport sector. A whole lot of other jobs can and will be replaced by automation and robotisation. It is just a matter of time.

Sound terrible? Too bad, evolution doesn't care about your or anyone's feelings. If you've read Sapiens, you've read that hunter-gatherers probably lived a happier life as farmers, still yet we farm.

The apocalypse is imminent. No, not necessary! [4]

Walk with me thru this short example. You buy something online which then gets shipped to your front door. Part of the total price you pay is to cover the shipment costs. You all understand there is no such thing as free shipping, right?  The shipping price is build of different components, of which only the driver's wage is relevant for the example. Now evolution has decided that it will exchange the driver for a computer.

No more driver, no more cost, but where does that money go?

  1. The customers, shipping gets cheaper
  2. The shipping company, more profit
  3. The driver, he/she still gets paid

Scenario one sounds good but is unlikely as the shipping company has no gain. Option two is in the short term, the best choice for the shipping company. Profits go up like crazy! In the long run, things might be less interesting for them, as in the country of unemployment, nobody shops online. Nobody shops at all.

This leaves only option three, the at first most ridiculous option on the table. I've to admit; it took me also a while before I only started to consider this as an option. However, our economic system has proved, more or less, that can support all of us today. If you start to switch people for machines, that has not to change. They only minor difference is, a machine, not a human now does the work.

I've been taking some shortcuts and simplified things here and there, but none of the left out details will impact the essence. It might not be for next year and take another couple of decades. It's more likely to be an evolution than an overnight revolution. But one thing is for sure; it will put things upside down.

So, where will that money go?