Next Stop, Automation Station

Rio Tinto, the mining company, is planning to replace its train drivers with robots.  Why? To save money, because its drivers make an astonishing $220,000 per year.  It’s a pretty sweet deal for a trained operator who is willing to live in the Australian Outback…since there aren’t that many of those, the pay is high.  Since there so few people to fill those jobs they have quite a lot of leverage over their employer Rio.  Rio, on the other hand, has every incentive to try to automate those people out of their jobs.

It’s an interesting illustration that automation probably won’t work the way people casually expect it to.  Train operation is quite a skilled profession – it may or may not be harder than trucking, but it’s certainly a less common skillset.  That’s exactly why it’s a prime target for automation, because the skills’ rarity means that employers lack leverage over these skilled employees.  It’s why BART drivers in San Francisco so frequently strike, because it’s simply not possible to bring in scabs.  While people tend to talk about low-skill jobs as being the most at-risk category for automation, I think it would be relatively high-paying, middle-skilled jobs like vehicle operation.  That’s precisely where the tasks are most suitable to automation and where the employers would most like to substitute labor with capital.

If true, it suggests that political impediments to automation might start popping up.  Low-skill, low-income laborers tend to be devoid of political power in America – when CVS replaces checkout people with robots nobody really cares except the people who get fired.  On the other hand, these high-paying middle-skilled jobs are very frequently unionized and politically active.  As automating their jobs becomes more technically feasible, we should probably expect them to act to protect their cartel.  Perhaps regulatory barriers will ultimately prevent the blossoming of fully automated production and infrastructure.  But then again, unions haven’t been particularly effective at much for the past few decades.

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