Studying the Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles on the Workforce

A multidisciplinary research team from Michigan State University will use a $2.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a four-year study examining the impacts of autonomous vehicles on the future workforce.

Shelia Cotten, professor in the Department of Media and Information, who is a leading expert on the use and impacts of emerging technologies, will lead the team, which will draw from organizational psychology, economics, sociology, geography, technology and transportation engineering.

Serving as co-principal investigators on the project are Elizabeth Mack, associate professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences, and Chu-Hsiang “Daisy” Chang, associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

“We are approaching the next phase of technological change where people will interact with autonomous machines in various contexts,” Mack said. “This project will help us understand these interactions and their impact on driving jobs, which is one of the first waves of workplaces expected to be impacted by this new wave of technologies.”

The era of automated vehicles will bring changing job requirements for workers who use vehicles, which will lead to the replacement of workers, Cotten said.

“Our research project will help determine the specific skills and skillsets needed to ensure that members of the current workforce, as well as the future workforce, are prepared for this transition,” she said. “This project will also identify the impacts of this shift on workers’ lives, which has not been frequently a focus in past research.”

Researchers will help determine:

  • How driving jobs will change in response to automation of vehicles and what new skills will be required.
  • How willing and able workers are to adapt to the changing nature of driving jobs, and whether the changing nature of jobs will disadvantage some groups of workers more so than others.
  • The anticipated downstream impacts on drivers (i.e., employment trends and income inequality) in the transportation industry, organizations and society.

Drawing on insights from organizational psychology, researchers will explore challenges related to personnel competency, human resource decisions, training and development and career management.

Engineering faculty will support the project in its focus on infrastructure and connected automated vehicle technology, the drivers behind the current paradigm shift in transportation.

The team will also use focus groups, surveys and skill mapping to identify the driving occupations that are most at risk for worker displacement and the occupations that will require worker retraining. Skills maps and occupational data will be used to estimate what changes will occur, as related to the diffusion of new technology and economic models. This will help researchers understand the potential for job loss, wage reductions and the impacts the changes will have on the workforce.

As part of the project, skills maps will be shared with education and workforce groups, who can develop new training and certificate programs, in order to mitigate job displacement. The project results will also be shared with the broader community, through a variety of webinars and training videos published to YouTube and visits to area high schools.

“MSU leads the way in studying sociomobility – the social, behavioral, policy and related impacts of mobility,” Cotten said. “With over 40 researchers across the university focused on sociomobility, MSU is the ‘go-to’ place for understanding the impacts of automated vehicles.”

The research team includes J. Kevin Ford, professor in the Department of Psychology; John Verboncoeur, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering; Peter Savolainen, associate chair for graduate studies in the College of Engineering; and Troy Hale, professor of practice in the MSU School of Journalism.

Click here for information on mobility at MSU.