Autonomous vehicles are inevitable. Here’s how to get your business ready.

This year is the tenth anniversary of the iPhone. Think about the world ten years ago before everyone on the planet had an internet-connected supercomputer in their pocket. The iPhone has changed the world dramatically in ten short years, displacing old solutions and jobs, while creating numerous new industries.

The disruption is about to happen on a larger scale with autonomous vehicles.

In the next ten to twenty years, a substantial amount of workers are going to be replaced by autonomous vehicles. The frequently cited example is long-haul trucking, which employs 3.5 million Americans (8.7 million if you include positions that don’t include driving.) Autonomous trucking is a reality but it’s not going to happen overnight. We’ll see pilots for specific tasks in specific regions that leads to a broader roll-out across the world. Eventually there will be fewer, higher paying jobs for maintenance and last mile delivery. But we have some time – there’s a generation of workers that can plan for today’s jobs to disappear.

This longer-term rollout is due to a variety of factors – autonomous trucks will have to share roads with cars and trucks driven by humans; trucking is a regulated industry with legal accountability and regulated processes for transporting goods; and today, last-mile transportation still requires humans present to take vehicles off the highway, even in autonomous vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles are going to cause disruption in other industries much earlier: agriculture, construction, and landscaping are rapidly adopting autonomous vehicles. Together these industries employ close to 11 million Americans. There are two key reasons why these industries will adopt autonomous vehicles faster:

  1. These industries mostly operate on private land, free of traffic related regulations

  2. There are strong cost-saving incentives for business owners to migrate from human capital to autonomous vehicles

Farming is a perfect example. Today, as an owner of agricultural equipment you’re limited by your regional relationships and daylight hours. With autonomous equipment, you could follow the weather, planting seeds in the ground 24/7 in optimal growing conditions.

Some farmers already do this with their combines. Combines start in Florida early in the year and operators follow the climate – as harvest season progress, these combines move northward towards Canada to work in regions with the most demand at any given time.

Operating dates in agriculture are limited. Today that means operators work 18 hours a day, creating safety issues and increasing labour costs. With autonomous vehicles, machines can operate 24/7 without risk.

These business advantages offer powerful incentives – broader geographic reach, more operating hours in any season, increased performance, and increased safety. We’re going to see a very fast migration to autonomous vehicles in these industries over the next five to ten years with a large disruption to employment.

If you’re a business owner

In Canada, there are roughly 350,000+ contractors. The majority of those people got into it because they were really skilled at their trade and have an innate knowledge of how to run a business in their industry where little formal training exists. 

This group needs to continue its focus on education, and building their business skills immediately. They need to be open to testing out technology as fast as they can and adapting their business to this new model.

It will be hard. It’s expensive to test new technology. There's a concept of burning daylight: every hour that you spend testing or learning something new, you're not making your hourly rate. But you need to do it.

If you’re an operator

If you’re highly skilled and recognized as the expert in some way, it may make sense to focus on craftsmanship over commoditization. For many operators, these jobs could disappear.

Jobs in agriculture, construction, and landscaping are changing and will evolve as autonomous vehicles continue to emerge. The next five years will be gradual, and then suddenly many of the jobs could be gone.

So how do you get your business ready? We need to prepare and educate ourselves to mitigate job loss. Just like the iPhone ten years ago, it's about evolving the way we work and live. We must face disruption with a readiness to grow.