NSF Awards $2.49 Million to MSU to Study Impacts of Autonomous Vehicles on the Workforce

September 16, 2019 - Press Release

Cars on the highway

Researchers Join Forces to Prepare the Future Workforce for Autonomous Vehicles, Using Expertise from the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, and College of Social Science

Michigan State University researchers will aid the transition of the U.S. labor force into the era of automated vehicles. The research team received a $2.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a four-year research study examining the impacts of autonomous vehicles on the future workforce.

Led by Principal Investigator Shelia Cotten, P.D., professor in the Department of Media and Information and a leading expert in studying the use and impacts of emerging technologies, the research team will use a convergent approach, drawing from organizational psychology, economics, sociology, geography, technology, and transportation engineering to analyze the effects of automated vehicles, or AVs. Serving as co-principal investigators on the project are Elizabeth Mack, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Spatial Sciences; and Chu-Hsiang “Daisy” Chang, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychology. 

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

"We are approaching the next phase of technological change where people will interact with autonomous machines in various contexts,” said Mack. “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 Transition to the Era of Automated Vehicles

As the U.S. labor force transitions to automated vehicles, millions of jobs will be directly impacted. The era of automated vehicles will bring changing job requirements for workers who use vehicles, which will lead to the replacement of workers. Drivers who work with automated vehicles may experience changes in pay and training requirements. The transition will also have an impact on organizations, living standards and the well-being of the workforce.

“Automated vehicles are likely to have substantial impacts on the current and future workforce – from necessitating changing tasks for current jobs to the creation of numerous new jobs,” said Cotten. “We know little at this point in time about the specific job skills that will be needed as automated vehicles evolve and impact the driving workforce. 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. This project will also identify the impacts of this shift on workers’ lives, which has not been frequently a focus in past research.”

The goal of MSU’s research project is to prepare the workforce for the shift in automation that will occur as AVs are used more broadly, leading to the saturation of self-driving cars in the U.S. 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 (e.g., employment trends and income inequality) in the transportation industry, organizations, and society.

“Understanding the impacts of automated vehicles on the workforce and society is challenging,” said Cotten. “No one discipline can adequately examine the range of impacts.

That’s why MSU researchers are using a convergent approach. The interdisciplinary team includes experts in media and technology, sociology, geography, psychology, and engineering. 

A Convergent Approach to Studying Workforce Impacts

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

“These areas of expertise can inform us about how a specific technology adoption in the workplace—autonomous vehicles—may affect the workforce from a systemic perspective,” said Chang. “For example, based on knowledge related to work analysis and training, we will contribute to the skill mapping to facilitate the career transition and adaption for workers who are at risk of displacement by autonomous vehicles.”

One part of the project will include identifying the demands on the workforce in the future. 

“We will characterize the specific knowledge and skills that will be made obsolete by this technology for drivers in different industries, help drivers identify alternative jobs and careers that best utilize their existing skillsets, and pinpoint additional training and education that can facilitate the acquisition of new knowledge and skills so that the at-risk drivers may transition into new jobs and careers,” said Chang.

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

“This project is aimed at understanding and proactively addressing the human impacts of societal changes induced by technological advances,” said Verboncoeur. “It exemplifies the transdisciplinary capacity of MSU research in carrying out its mission as the pioneer land grant institution for the benefit of the state and the nation.”

Savolainen said the project also showcases the collaboration of MSU's SocioMobility initiative.

“Faculty from various departments and colleges have come together to assess the societal implications associated with autonomous vehicles and other emerging mobility solutions,” Savolainen said. “Autonomous vehicles will ultimately reshape many aspects of our society and day-to-day lives.” 

Methods for Studying SocioMobility

In the study, faculty will examine both short-term and long-term impacts of automated vehicles on the transportation workforce.

“We’re looking at how the introduction of AVs will create the need for new or different knowledge, skills, and abilities among workers in these domains. In turn, we will investigate how these workers will be impacted by these transitions, which will help to inform emerging education, training, and retraining initiatives here in Michigan and nationwide,” he added.

Researchers will 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,” said Cotten. “With over 40 researchers across the university focused on SocioMobility, MSU is the ‘go-to’ place for understanding the impacts of automated vehicles.”