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'Nobody knows if driverless vehicles will save lives, but they're guaranteed to kill jobs'

Mike Rutherford speaks out on businesses wanting to switch to driverless vehicles

Lost your job? Suspect the industry that once employed you is dead? ‘Too old’ to retrain, or attend college? Desperate for something – anything – that’ll put food on the table? You’re not alone. Millions are in a similar boat. But many who have lost their jobs, from airline pilots without flights, to hospitality workers with no events, have quickly found alternative employment in the road transport industry. 

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The work isn’t glamorous or highly paid, but it is challenging. Welcome to the world of delivering parcels, groceries, prescriptions and take-away meals. Thankfully, the number of delivery jobs involving face-to-face interaction between drivers and residents grows daily. At a time when overall employment levels and prospects are disastrous, delivery work is available. It’s one of the fastest-growing and most inclusive sectors for men and women, young and old, well or poorly educated. Required qualifications are things that most adults already possess: a driving licence, work ethic and friendly personality. 

What a tragedy then that some entrepreneurs are cranking up plans for a future without drivers aboard delivery vehicles. Their aim? Rob these salt-of-the-earth workers of their livelihoods, while also robbing the state of the billions such people pay in income tax and National Insurance contributions. How dumb is that?

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With a socially divisive, profit-at-any-cost agenda that stinks, some elements of ‘the commercial sector’ consider £8-£10 per hour pay for delivery personnel excessive and avoidable. Self-driving vans and lorries with £0 per hour labour costs are what they seek.   

Their dubious sales pitch argues that driverless vehicles can do the same delivery tasks as those with drivers. Problem is, they can’t. When a delivery van arrives with a package but without a driver, who rings the doorbell of the intended recipient or, in his or her absence, the nearest neighbour? If supermarket deliveries become driver-free, who lifts the heavy crates out of the vans before lugging them into the hallways and kitchens of customers? Will a housebound person requiring a potentially life-saving prescription be expected to step into wet, chilly, dark streets to access the correct drugs from a self-driving pharmacy vehicle? And do you honestly believe that a vehicle lacking its driver is capable of fetching a hot take-away meal to the door of an apartment in a tower block? Forget it.

The claim that eliminating drivers is about road safety, not job culling, is utterly unconvincing. Nobody knows if driverless vehicles will save lives when operating in real-world conditions on packed public streets. But it’s guaranteed they’ll kill jobs – plus the hopes and dreams of decent people willing to do important work for modest pay. 

The debate about whether private motorists should or shouldn’t be forced to use driverless cars is big. But cruelly making delivery drivers extinct is an even bigger issue with wider, more serious implications. We can’t allow them to be destroyed just because already wealthy businesses want to save a few more quid. There’s no place for damaging, life-altering penny pinching like this in civilised society during the already tragic 2020s.

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Chief columnist

Mike was one of the founding fathers of Auto Express in 1988. He's been motoring editor on four tabloid newspapers - London Evening News, The Sun, News of the World & Daily Mirror. He was also a weekly columnist on the Daily Telegraph, The Independent and The Sunday Times. 

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