Will Human Labor Make San Francisco Turn to Robots?

It makes economic sense to do so, unless interest rates go up. It may not make political sense.

If people find it easy to finance construction projects then it will look more and more attractive to invest in automating the Bay Area Rapid Transport system (BART) as opposed to dealing with labor strikes. This is considered by a TechCrunch post:

For the past week, the entire San Francisco Bay Area has been on the brink of a full-fledged train strike. The unpredictable negotiations have left commuters in limbo: it’s too risky to schedule business meetings, but there is not enough uncertainty to arrange alternative transportation. As a result, BART has lost an estimated $168,000 after a 5 percent fear-based drop in traffic.

During last summer’s BART strike, a few outspoken Silicon Valley technologists incurred the wrath of the civil libertarian press for suggesting that San Francisco should simply automate the train operators and be done with the labor mess. Rather than join the techies vs. worker rage fest, I decided to simply ask the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) authority if it was technically possible to automate train drivers, just like Paris and other cities have done around the world.

He didn’t get much of a positive answer from BART. That may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they’re planning. Asking around he showed how it might save a lot of money to use robots rather than people.

Rubin was willing to give us a (very) cautious ballpark estimate, estimating that the government could save around $250 million.

BART will shell out $400 million in labor costs for the $1.6 billion transit system, which pays train operators some of the highest wages in the country ($66,000 – $74,000 a year). More specifically, there are roughly 500 unionized train operators and station attendants, averaging $92,156 a year, with benefits. Automation never fully replaces every worker, but BART would save a maximum of around $46,078,000 per year in labor costs — or more, if it ends up increasing the number of trains from 669 to 1,000.

From a market position, striking unions make the price of labor rise even when they don’t win in their negotiations. Their strikes cost money. They also raise the perceived price of future labor for other companies. When they see a strike happen they have reason to contemplate how they might face labor strikes in the future. Maybe their employees are going to cause them unexpected losses.

Barring a Skynet-like awakening into self-awareness, robots don’t go on strike.

But TechCruch forgets that San Francisco has a motive to not replace BART workers with robots. Robots don’t strike but neither do they vote.

Even though the BART drivers are unhappy with the city government right now, the city has an incentive to try to make them happy in order to get their votes in the future. This is how we turn a city into Detroit. All the players either close their eyes to the future, or hope they can move away from the Detroitified city with their plunder when the time comes.

Who needs Terminators to destroy humanity when you have politicians?