Future of work: The taxi driver and waiter

The future of work

Read the first, second, third and fourth parts of our Future of Work series
Maurice McParland, London taxi driver

What does your job involve? I work nights, typically a 35 hour week, mainly around the West End and the City, picking up people from theatres, restaurants, as well as business people. I don’t rank up, instead I just trust my sense of where work will be. I get a bit of work, maybe 5 to 10pc, from two taxi cab apps – Free Now and Gett.

When I started almost a decade ago, work was more abundant. Then Uber came along. I’d say it knocked my work back by 10pc plus. Other drivers were more impacted than that. Despite the challenges, though, it’s still the best job I’ve had. I love being a London cabbie. The autonomy far outweighs the financial gain. I’m my own boss and can work whenever I feel like it.

How has Covid affected life: Demand for black cabs is very much diminished. The West End is closed essentially. Colleagues of mine are having to do different driving jobs – deliveries for Waitrose or Ikea. Another friend is considering opening a cafe. Some drivers have just paid for new electric cabs too – those cost £60,000 and repayments are hundreds each week. Those guys are under severe pressure. 

London taxi driver Maurice McParland has struggled to get enough work during the pandemic.

How long have you been doing it? 9 years

What training did you get? The knowledge, of course. It takes three to four years and is a serious undertaking. For most people it is really tough. 

How much does it pay? £14,000 to £30,000

What do you think are the hardest bits? Long hours. A lot of drivers don’t live close to town, they have to drive into work from an hour away. Then, if you’re a family man, you’re doing 10 to 12 hour days, six days a week. It’s hard. 

What is the most boring bit? A lot of drivers rank up at stations. You can be there 45 minutes waiting and then you get a £7 job.  

Do you think your job will be the same when you retire? We’ll just about be around in 10 years. But hard to see in 15-20 years we’ll still be here. This is a job people come to later in life, in their 30s and 40s. Many drivers are older and with this last year, people are throwing in the towel. The future of the black cab in London is in danger. 

Analysis

Driving is perhaps the most celebrated task in the field of automation. The race to driverless cars was launched in 2004 by the US government, which challenged competitors to race an unmanned vehicle to Las Vegas. The winner only got seven miles before crashing. The following year, however, five vehicles completed the 132-mile course. But that was desert with no traffic.

The multi-billion dollar question is whether driverless cars can operate in complex, traffic-filled environments. It has also led to an entire field of “robot ethics” that asks if robot drivers, unable to prevent a crash with pedestrians, say, should choose which pedestrians to crash into – children or pensioners?

Still, it is the tech that is most challenging. In a celebrated 2004 paper called Why People Still Matter, two economists noted that “executing a left turn against oncoming traffic involves so many factors that it is hard to imagine discovering the set of rules that can replicate a driver’s behaviour”. Google launched a fully automated test car only seven years later. 

And yet, despite the presence of many driver-aid features, like park assist and lane control, and Teslas equipped with increasingly sophisticated autopilots, fully autonomous cars, in which steering wheels could be ditched altogether, are still not on the streets.

Elon Musk, naturally, said last year he was confident such “level five” autonomy “will happen and … very quickly”, and promised Tesla was “very close”.

About | Vehicle autonomy levels

Others, from Uber to Google’s Waymo, have ploughed billions into the same bet, but we have heard countless such promises before. There are two problems – to disrupt the status quo and win acceptance, such auto-drivers must not just be as safe as human drivers (1,758 UK deaths in 2019, 153,158 injuries), they must be much safer.

Secondly, they must traverse the technological tipping point where some drivers are still human and, therefore, unpredictable. They would find it easier if all drivers were computers. But to get there, they must prove they can deal with us.

Would machines actually do it better? Driverless cars would change the very architecture of our planet, which has been designed around vehicles in the 20th century.

Hands-free car

Imagine streets where no cars are parked, because they roll away to other jobs once they have finished with you. Imagine the time saved not having to drive; but imagine too, the redundancies. Not just with taxi drivers, but among tens of millions employed around the world to transport not just people but goods too, on vehicles from tiny motorcycles to giant lorries.   

Bottom Line: Trust issues and nostalgia will keep some human drivers in jobs for a while, but probably not many, and not for long.

Implications for this job group: Despite many disappointments, driverless cars – and thus taxis – are coming this decade. But drivers only make up one half of this group; the others are machine operatives – factory line assembly workers mostly. Performing repetitive tasks in a controlled environment, they face an even more uncertain future.

ONS jobs at risk estimate:  63pc

Saeed Mohamedali, waiter

Age: 52

What does your job involve? I work at the Canton Arms gastropub in Stockwell. Essentially I make sure the guests have an enjoyable evening from the time they arrive: get them seated, check dietary requirements, take food and drink orders and liaise with the kitchen to make sure items are still available. 

How long have you been doing it? Eight years

What training did you get? On the job training

How much does it pay? Minimum wage plus tips. Careers Service estimate: £12,000-£27,000 

What do you think are the hardest bits? Balancing customer experience with the need to usher diners gently on if others are waiting. Also dealing with irate customers who don’t understand new Covid closing times.  

What is the most boring bit? Closing down each night – every surface has to be cleaned, every glass has to be polished. 

"Customer relations, I think, will always be difficult to automate", says Saeed Mohamedali.

Do you think your job will be the same when you retire? In our context, yes. I’ve been to Japan and there are automated restaurants there and you order and pay and eat, but that tends to be something you do on your own. But we have regulars, we have conversations that aren’t to do with work.

Interaction with people is part of the experience. It would be sadder without that. On a commercial side, some people won’t order another drink unless you ask them. That’s a human touch, like giving and getting feedback if dishes aren’t what people expected. Customer relations, I think, will always be difficult to automate.

Analysis

It’s a long time since the sushi conveyor belt restaurant stopped being a novelty, yet one of the things that stills mark out the world’s top restaurants is waiter service. Staff at Michelin starred restaurants know that the experience, not just the food, is what customers are looking for.

At pubs, the sense of community, of chatting to regulars and staff, is also critical. But for venues where ambience is not such a factor, automation is waiting.

Mohamedali works as a waiter at the Canton Arms in Stockwell, London.

Restaurants can already hire a robot waiter, for £599 a month. Indeed, at 73pc, the ONS says waiting tables is the role most at risk from automation of any job category.

It may not even be direct tech replacement that kills off the role – food delivery apps, for example, allow more of us to get food at home.

Bottom Line: The question is not whether machines will be able to do the job, but restaurant branding. Fast food joints won’t care, and some are already largely automated. But for other venues automation will be synonymous with a lowering of standards.

As with robots used in social care, there is a yuk factor to overcome. News reports about robot waiters describe them as “creepy” and “weird”.

Over the coming years, however, the line between human and robot is sure to become uncomfortably blurred. We can have emotional interactions with robots: one famous spoof video tugs at our heart strings when people “beat up” a robot.     

Implications for this job group: Elementary occupations are not always so elementary, as anyone who has tried to carry a tray full of drinks through a crowded pub on a Saturday night knows.

But largely, from shelf stackers to window cleaners, variables are limited, and that is the key element that lets in the robots, and is the reason that this group, says the ONS, is the most vulnerable to automation.

ONS jobs at risk estimate:  73pc

What are your predictions for the future of work? Tell us in the comments section below

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