Autonomous Vehicles, Mobility, and Employment: The Roads Ahead

John J. Leonard, David A. Mindell, and Erik L. Stayton

Prepared for MIT Task Force on Work of the Future


Fully autonomous cars, trucks, and buses, able to operate across wide geographical areas with no drivers necessary, would revolutionize ground transportation. The number of accidents and fatalities could drop significantly. Time that people waste stuck in traffic could be recovered for work or leisure. Urban landscapes would change, requiring less parking and improving safety and efficiency for all. New models for the distribution of goods and services—the “physical internet”—would emerge as robotic vehicles move people and objects effortlessly through the world, on demand.

We might also see human drivers, relieved of the attention burdens of driving, liberated to clog the streets and pollute the air with many more miles traveled. We might face cities congested with autonomous delivery robots. People might abandon public transit for comfortable autonomous bubbles, leading to a collapse of public infrastructure. Millions of Americans who earn a living making, driving, and supporting automobiles could be out of work.

Automated driving technologies have promised to disrupt urban mobility for a long time. Especially since companies began announcing major breakthroughs after 2010, automated driving technologies have begun to raise fears of mass unemployment in transit systems and mobility-related industries like trucking. This research brief considers the current state of automated driving technologies, including driver assistance systems and highly automated vehicles (AVs), as well as their potential implications for mobility and employment. Broader impacts, including the interplay with transit and land-use and environmental consequences are also briefly considered.

Visions of automation in mobility will not be fully realized in the next few years, as recent developments indicate that a major transition will not occur suddenly. Rather, analysis of the best available data suggests that the reshaping of mobility around automation will take more than a decade. We expect that fully automated driving will be restricted to limited geographic regions and climates for at least the next decade, and that increasingly automated mobility systems will thrive in subsequent decades. Still, even gradual increases in automation will have profound impacts on the movement of people and goods throughout the world. Moreover, automation in cars will not occur in isolation, but within a web of relationships with electrification, connected vehicles, and evolving service models across vehicle types.

This extended lead time means that policymakers can act now to prepare for and minimize disruptions to the millions of jobs in ground transportation and related industries that are likely to come, while also fostering greater economic opportunity and mitigating environmental impacts by building accessible mobility systems.

The adverse employment impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic add greater urgency to this topic. COVID-19 has exacerbated the existing inequities in mobility and employment in cities and has dealt a blow to public transit systems and ride-sharing. The surge in e-commerce has increased interest in robotic package delivery, and more workers are currently working from home. As commuting, education, and shopping patterns move toward a new normal, safe and efficient public transit will remain vital for our cities. Investments in workforce training are needed now more than ever to ensure that workers impacted by COVID-19 have a place in the automated mobility systems of the future, however long that future takes to arrive.