A Real Look At How Driverless Technology Will Affect S’pore Workers

This is a guest post.

You may have read about millennial entrepreneur Edden Goh who appeared on Millennials of Singapore, talking about his passion serving bus captains at his stalls located in various National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU) canteens islandwide.

But what you may not know is that many of these public transport workers face an uncertain future where they will lose their current jobs due to driverless technology, or when they are directly or indirectly involved in issues plaguing our public transport system.

Many of these public transport drivers and workers are members of NTWU, a union for workers in the transport industry such as bus captains, rail workers and heavy vehicle drivers.

Photo: NTWU Executive Secretary Melvin Yong with SMRT staff (Source)

There are unions in Singapore?

The National Transport Workers’ Union (NTWU) was set up in 1981 to look after the welfare and interest of transport workers through collective bargaining, resolution of disputes and grievances, and welfare benefits.

This transport union actually covers 18,000 transport workers in 43 branches in companies such as SBS Transit, SMRT Corporation, Jurong Port, and ComfortDelgro Group. Even truck drivers are covered by this union. NTWU is one of 58 unions affiliated to the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

NTWU has been actively engaging SMRT staff throughout multiple incidences such as recent Bishan tunnel flooding incident, and in the aftermath of when two SMRT maintenance workers were killed.

What else does NTWU do? Do they only help SMRT workers?

If you happen to visit the secret Best Cafeteria at AMK Hub, you’ll notice that SBS Transit has framed photos of the bus captain of the month, with testimonials from happy customers.

Upon closer inspection, you can see that some of the bus captains have ranks like “Senior Bus Captain” and “Senior Bus Captain II” (no it’s not like Star Wars I and II, but actually refer to job grades within the entire Bus Captain career path).

Until the last few years, bus captains had fewer career options which limited how high they could climb, and it wasn’t easy to change to other job functions.

With NTWU’s intervention, SBS Transit created the Progressive Wage Model for Bus Captains, by creating more levels for bus captains to be promoted to (hence the I, II, III etc).

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SBS Transit bus captains can now even take on non-driving executive and managerial roles in interchange and depot operations and management, bus operations control centres, training etc).

Bus captains get training using Virtual Reality

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Having their own canteen at major bus terminals isn’t the only perk bus captains get.

Those working for rival SMRT get training via virtual simulators at the Bus Training and Evaluation Centre at the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i).

The good thing about these virtual simulators is that the student can get exposed to various situations on the road and learn how to respond, without actually being exposed to the dangers of a real simulation on the road.

But will all these initiatives help if driverless vehicles reduce the need for human workers?

Don’t laugh, advances in driverless vehicles mean that human drivers may be displaced very soon. Having a vocational licence won’t mean squat.

Check out these driverless buses on trial in Italy, in 2014.

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Or these driverless buses already launched in Japan last year.

There are around 10,000 bus captains, more than 20,000 taxi drivers, 10,500 Grab and Uber drivers, and that’s not even including deliverymen, heavy vehicle drivers and other workers in the transport industry.

NTWU Executive Secretary Melvin Yong revealed in a blogpost how ST Kinetics will conclude driverless bus trials by 2020 which will see automonomous vehicles deployed at Jurong Island and NUS. NTU is also starting an autonomous bus trial within NTU and CleanTech next year!

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Questions we should think about are:

  1. How long before human workers are displaced by driverless technology?
  2. What are the future jobs that displaced human workers can transition to?
  3. What skills do these future unemployed workers need to learn in order to enter these future jobs?
  4. Who will train these future unemployed?

For example, the majority of bus captains (64%) have secondary school education with 40% being between the ages of 51 and 60. To transform into an IT or Engineering role within a few years may not be possible for some of them.

But driver-less doesn’t equate man-less

Co-robotization is a term which brings relief to any worker who is worried his job will be replaced by a robot. Even with driverless technology replacing human drivers, we will still need humans to keep an eye on things, and come up with timely and creative solutions which robots cannot.

Melvin Yong gives some examples:

  • Operators to remotely control autonomous buses
  • Customer service managers to assist commuters especially the elderly and physically disabled
  • Testers to ensure autonomous buses are working properly
  • Security officers for crowd management and first aid
  • Standby bus drivers in case autonomous buses break down

Even Jack Ma tells us why technology will never replace humans.

But as our jobs change due to disruption, NTWU is not taking anything for granted.

NTWU is already visiting organisations exploring driverless technology to understand what new vocations and skills will be required, working with the Singapore Bus Academy to ensure its curriculum will prepare workers for the jobs of the future, talking to LTA to understand the masterplan for driverless technology, whilst engaging public transport operators to ensure bus captains are not displaced.

Photo: NTWU Executive Secretary Melvin Yong at nuTonomy (Source)

So while we as customers are eagerly checking out cool new tech that will transform our lives, we should also be aware that there are many people worried about their future jobs, and even more people in NTWU worried about these people.

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Featured Image: newsweek.com