Big money, jobs, robots, electric vehicles, climate change and survival 
By Walter Sorochan Emeritus Professor San Diego State University

Posted June 21, 2019; updated November 13, 2021.  Disclaimer

robot container We have a silent war between big money, jobs, robots, electric vehicles, climate change and survival.  No one frames this issue in these words.  But that is what it really is. All this is exemplified with the hi-tech approach to moving cargo from one country with big cargo transport ships [ image on right] to sea ports in southern California and other countries. Such cargo transporting is linked to reducing air pollution and jobs.

In November 2017, the Port of Long Beach and the neighboring Port of Los Angeles pledged to dramatically slash their emissions by phasing out internal combustion engines. Their goal is to replace all diesel trucks and cargo-handling equipment with zero-emissions equivalents by 2035. Usually that means electric vehicles. However, the changes are more than just using more and better technology to replace pollution, the changes affect human workers and their liveihoods. It has to do with technology changes at cargo handing jobs at seaports, like Long beach and Los Angeles.

International Longshore and Warehouse Union [ILWU] controls all the jobs at the docks.The union’s founder, Harry Bridges, started preparing for automation in the 1950s. At that time, "automation" came in the form of containers that replaced individual bales, bundles and boxes of goods to be shipped. The containers carried more cargo and required fewer hands. Bridges signed an agreement with the terminal operators allowing that, but he did so only after ensuring his members got higher pay and pension guarantees.The longshoremen owe their leverage to the fact that, unlike factories and auto plants, ports cannot be outsourced. Guerin: Robots & climate change 2018  Below is a video of a developing container terminal in Los Angeles:

VIDEO: Port of LA Automated Container Terminal Length= 5.20 mns.

 Source: Port LA

Pier 400 in Los Angeles is North America's largest shipping terminal, employing thousand of workers. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach moved 46% of Asian imports last year, according to a study commissioned by the Pacific Maritime Association. Schuler: LA and Long beach ready for robots 2019

The future of cargo handling looks like the future of driving: electic motors replacing gasoline engines, autonomous software replacing human workers. Automated cargo movement replaces three kinds of manned diesel vehicles: crane, top-loader and truck; including driverless trucks. The fall-out would mean cutting the need for thousands of expensive workers. The average full-time worker makes $183,000 a year. These technology changes pit clean-energy against blue-collar jobs.

Automation comes with several advantages: It lowers operating costs, boosts efficiency and allows terminals to run 24/7. A robot port also avoids the peril of worker slowdowns during contact talks. But .... humans would still be needed to unload containers from ships, place them onto rail cars and maintain robots.  Schuler: LA and Long beach ready for robots 2019

When the $1.5 billion fully automated system at Long Beach Container Terminal is complete in 2021, it will handle twice as much freight as before, while cutting pollution. Already the Container Terminal is showing greater efficiency than other similar wharfs. In April, 2019, the average time it took trucks to complete their assignments at that dock was 34 minutes compared with 105 minutes at Pier 400, according to data from Harbor Trucking Association.  Schuler: LA and Long beach ready for robots 2019

The two Container Terminals are an example of how complicated our world has become. It is now and will become in the future more difficult to find meaningful work that helps one to survive.

What do we do after losing a job to robots?

The Container Terminal video illustrates how complicated shipping goods can be from one country to another. Writer Bernick in Forbes Magazine provided three key lessons we’ve learned in the past half century about automation, job loss and the options now available to workforce practitioners and policymakers::  Bernick: What do we do? 2017

1. Since the 1960s, nearly all warnings about automation and higher unemployment have proved incorrect (though this time could be different).

2. The workforce system in the United States has succeeded well over the years in adapting to technology and automation, though going forward it will be challenged to increase its response time.

3. Policy entrepreneurs are rushing forward to advance guaranteed income schemes and other “end of work” schemes; experience suggests we be cautious, very cautious.  

For more detail about these three suggestions, you can go to Bernick's article:  Bernick: What do we do? 2017

Job losses have been happening to automation for over 300 years, and especially since the industrial revolution. More recently manual workers are being displaced by robots. The big question is what do we do with those who lose their jobs? How do they survive? Numerous think tanks in Scandinavian countries have researched and studied this problem along with think tanks in United States. No one has come up with a good solution on how to take care of billions of people in the world who are vulnerable to no jobs now and in the future. 

Retiring early is only a partial solution and is not a good option. Government funding schemes for countering job loss are not practical and do not work. Why not? Taking care of physical survival needs does not ensure survival. The real essentials for survival are food, water, clean air, shelter, sanitation, health care and the need for meaningful work. Up to now, the world has not been able to provide these in an economic way.

But even if these survival needs were provided, the real need is psychic. The human brain needs to be challenged with new adventures all the time. This is referred to as plasticity.  Sorochan: Plasticity 2018 When humans do routein work, manual or hi-tech, then the brain goes to sleep. Humans can still do regular chores but the mind-brain is not challenged. This usually eventuates in boredom and shorter lifespan. But the mind-brain is activated immediately when challenged. The mind-brain is programmed to survive and does so for the physical body and itself. Everyone would need to be taught on how to use plasticity to help survive. But the physical body and brain still need nutrients to survive and this is what has to be solved. What does the mind-brain do for meaningful work without a work-job? How do we prepare children to work in the future?

For more information about future jobs and robots go to: Future jobs and robots


Bernick Michael, "After Robots Take Over Our Jobs, Then What?" Forbes, April 11, 2017.  Bernick: What do we do? 2017

Bucklin Linda, "America's busiest port gets ready for robots amind trade war," NewsMAx, May 20, 2019.  Bucklin: Robots for trade war 2019

Guerin Emily, "Robots steal port jobs — but they also fight climate change," Environment and Science, January 22, 2018  Guerin: Robots & climate change 2018

Schuler Mike, "Amide trade war, busiest U.S. port readies for robots," gCaltain, May 20, 2019.  Schuler: LA and Long beach ready for robots 2019

Sorochan Walter, "Plasticity,", December 30, 2018.  Sorochan: Plasticity 2018

The Times editorial board, "The rise of robots doesn’t have to mean the fall of human workers," LA Tines, April 16, 2019.  LA Times editorial board: Robots displace workers 2019