Talent Management Column Waiting on Robo-Revolution

The robot takeover has yet to materialize despite repeated predictions that it inevitably would. Here's why.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016
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News reports tell us driverless cars are on the brink of ubiquity. This would soon mean driverless trucks could become commonplace, resulting in millions of truck drivers being replaced by robots.

Very credible, unless you think about it for, say, more than 30 seconds.

Maybe it's just me and my heartbreaking experience at the New York World's Fair in 1964, where I saw robots in the kitchen, video telephones and yes, driverless cars that also flew. We were promised that they would be here soon. Those exhibits moved to Disney World, where they continued to promise over the next 40 years that robots would soon be ironing our shirts. I'm still waiting.

Here's the more sobering reality, which has been true since the Industrial Revolution: The ability to do something with technology and actually doing it are entirely different things. Commercial airplanes have had the ability to fly themselves for decades. The reason we still have pilots is because of those rare circumstances when things go wrong with equipment. We've had VCRs for decades. The reason they didn't wipe out commercial-driven TV is because they were so difficult for most people to use. We've had the ability to produce video phones since the 1960s. The reason we don't have video cameras in every phone now is because it turns out we don't want people to see us all the time. ATMs have been dispensing cash for a generation now, but they have barely made a dent in the number of bank tellers. The reason is that some people like to talk to humans, and we found other useful things for tellers to do.

You get the point. Lots of factors affect whether technology gets used or not. So let's turn to truck driving.

The first point to remember is that most truck drivers do a lot more than simply drive a truck. After they get the truck to your house, the UPS driver has to get out of the truck, grab the right package, navigate the icy steps, get someone to sign for the delivery and chat for a minute about the World Series, all before getting back into the truck to drive someplace else. Has anyone got a Robbie the Robot who can do all that? I don't think so. Do you think there will be a big push to buy all the navigation stuff to replace drivers when we still need to have that person in the passenger seat to do all that running around?

OK, so maybe we are just talking about long-haul trucking, a small subset of the truck-driving world, and robots driving trucks on the interstates. We need to have a lot of infrastructure even before that happens. Who is going to gas up that truck? Are we going to go back to service stations (not just in New Jersey!) with attendants who pump the gas for these trucks? Who is going to get out and wipe the dirt off the windshield, or at least the camera lens? 

Before they bother buying robot drivers, I think trucking companies would far prefer simple changes in regulations that would save them a lot more money, such as allowing tandem trailers -- two trailers per truck and driver. Or drone drivers who pilot the trucks from home. (No jobs lost there, of course.)

That takes us to a more general point. What's the incentive to replace truck drivers with robots? Human truck drivers are pretty cheap right now, with average pay about $20 per hour. Robots, on the other hand, will be pretty expensive for a while.

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What we know about the pace at which technology gets introduced in a context such as trucking is that it is not all that fast. Businesses have big investments in their current trucks. Retrofitting them will be difficult. The first users of robot drivers -- whenever that starts -- will probably be with a company buying new trucks operating within one state (because not all states will permit it), probably in the West (because roads are straighter there. It took cars and trucks about 50 years to replace horses. It might not take that long in this case, but don't hold your breath, either. The change, in all likelihood, will happen gradually.

So what about all those jobs? As with every new technology since the Industrial Revolution, other jobs pop up elsewhere. And at least for a while, someone is going to have to ride along with Robbie on the delivery routes, pump the gas and maintain the trucks. By that point, maybe deliveries will be made by flying drones.

Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His latest book is "Will College Pay Off? A Guide to the Most Important Financial Decision You'll Ever Make."


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