Rick Haglund: Path to self-driving vehicles could be bumpier than a Michigan road

Waymo Chrysler Pacifica driving in San Francisco | Dllu photo, Wikimedia Commons

Electric self-driving cars and trucks promise to transform an auto industry that has relied almost exclusively on gasoline-powered vehicles for more than a century to produce jobs and profits.

“I have no doubt that the automotive industry will change more in the next five to 10 years than it has in the last 50,” General Motors CEO Mary Barra said in 2016. “The convergence of connectivity, vehicle electrification, and evolving customer needs demand new solutions.”

GM has said it plans to eventually offer only electric-powered vehicles, the foundation for self-driving cars and trucks. 

Most other automakers also are racing to compete in those technologies, which they believe will be required to address climate change and boost mobility.

Autonomous vehicles, if and when they arrive, won’t just overhaul the auto industry. They pose a challenge to Michigan’s entire economy, with the potential to destroy and create hundreds of thousands of jobs.

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A new study by the state Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives found that 95,000 Michigan non-automaker jobs in 108 vehicle-related occupations, from truck drivers to parking lot attendants, are at risk over the next 30 years or so if self-driving vehicles become reality.

Tens of thousands of additional jobs could be cut by automakers and suppliers, mostly because electric vehicles have so many fewer moving parts than those powered by internal combustion engines.

A recent United Auto Workers union study found that more than 20,000 powertrain jobs are at risk in Michigan in the transition to electric vehicles. But new jobs could be created in batteries, electric motors, automotive electronics and other components.

There is a lot of debate over how soon self-driving vehicles be available and whether consumers will buy them.

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“It’s a very interesting dynamic,” said Glenn Stevens, executive director of MichAuto, an auto industry cluster program of Detroit Regional Chamber. “What’s the (growth) curve for the technology and how does that play out for the industry? That’s the tricky one.”

A J.D. Power and Associates survey of 100 automotive and tech industry experts earlier this year predicted it will be at least 12 years before individuals will be able to purchase fully self-driving cars.

And another survey earlier this year found that while just 30% of U.S. consumers would ride in a self-driving car now, 63% said they would do so in 10 years.

Meanwhile, major corporations are looking to ditch their gas-powered trucks in favor of electric and self-driving vehicles.

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Amazon, for instance, announced on Thursday that it had ordered 100,000 electric delivery vans from Rivian Automotive, a Plymouth-based startup truck manufacturer.  And shipping giant UPS has been quietly delivering cargo using self-driving trucks in Arizona.

The Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives study found that nearly 70,000 Michigan truck drivers, bus drivers, chauffeurs and others who drive full time could see their jobs disappear by 2051.

Another 26,000 jobs are at risk in occupations that require at least some driving. Among those are police officers, automotive body repair technicians and mail carriers.

The impact of job displacements is likely to be felt unevenly across the state.

While the largest number of vulnerable jobs are in Michigan’s metropolitan areas, a higher percentage of at-risk driving jobs are in rural areas.

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The Upper Peninsula and Northeast Michigan, two of the poorest regions of the state, have the highest percentage of driving-related jobs of any Michigan region — more than 13% of all jobs in those areas.

And the vast majority of those jobs in the state are held by men — 87.1% for full-time drivers and 71.6% for those who doing some driving in their jobs. Those drivers tend to be older and more ethnically diverse than the general population.

But the shift to autonomous vehicles could create new jobs, both in transportation and non-transportation sectors.

“[T]he widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is expected to provide benefits to consumers such as reduced travel times and costs,” the state study said. “This may result in more spending on non-transportation consumption and could lead to increased demand for a wide range of service occupations.” 

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More than 55,000 jobs a year through 2026 are expected to be created in occupations that could be affected by the switch to self-driving cars. Among them are engineers, computer programmers, registered nurses and food service workers.

And while President Donald Trump is throwing up roadblocks to a cleaner transportation future, Michigan policymakers are embracing electric and self-driving vehicles.

In 2016, Michigan became the first state to pass comprehensive legislation regulating the testing, development and eventual sale of self-driving cars.

Michigan also has established several autonomous vehicle testing centers, including the American Center for Mobility, a $100 million, 500-acre facility in Ypsilanti.

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But the path to an electric, self-driving future could be bumpier than a Michigan road. The challenges involved have sparked, in part, a nasty strike between GM and the UAW.

Automakers need to align their costs and workforce needs to  a new business model, while the UAW wants to ensure that its members — and future members — will prosper in the industry’s transformation.

Buckle up.

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