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Assessing emerging mobility solutions

Sept. 18, 2019

MSU researchers to use $2.49 million NSF grant to study autonomous vehicles and the workforce

A multidisciplinary research team from Michigan State University will use a $2.49 million grant from the National Science Foundation to conduct a four-year study examining the impacts of autonomous vehicles on the future workforce.

A $2.49 million NSF grant will examine the impact of autonomous vehicles on the future workforce.
A $2.49 million NSF grant will examine the impact of autonomous vehicles on the future workforce.

Shelia Cotten, professor in the Department of Media and Information, who is a leading expert on the use and impacts of emerging technologies, will lead the team, which will draw from organizational psychology, economics, sociology, geography, technology and transportation engineering.

Engineering faculty members Peter Savolainen and John 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.

John Verboncoeur will focus on infrastructure and connected automated vehicle technology.
John Verboncoeur will focus on infrastructure and connected automated vehicle technology.

“This project is aimed at understanding and proactively addressing the human impacts of societal changes induced by technological advances,” said Verboncoeur, associate dean for research and graduate studies in the College of Engineering. “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.”

Verboncoeur is also a professor of electrical and computer engineering, and computational mathematics, science and engineering.

MSU Foundation Professor Peter Savolainen, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said the project showcases the collaboration of MSU's sociomobility initiative.

Peter Savolainen is looking at how workers are being impacted by the transition to autonomous machines. ​
Peter Savolainen is collaborating in a look at workers and the impact of autonomous machines. ​

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

In the study, faculty are examining the short- and long-term impacts of AVs on the transportation workforce. Savolainen said it is an examination of which types of organizations are most likely to adopt AVs and when.

“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,” Savolainen added.

Serving as co-principal investigators on the project are Elizabeth Mack, associate professor in the Department of Geography, Environment and Spatial Sciences, and Chu-Hsiang “Daisy” Chang, associate professor in the Department of Psychology.

“We are approaching the next phase of technological change where people will interact with autonomous machines in various contexts,” Mack said. “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 era of automated vehicles will bring changing job requirements for workers who use vehicles, which will lead to the replacement of workers, Cotten said.

“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,” she said. “This project will also identify the impacts of this shift on workers’ lives, which has not been frequently a focus in past research.”

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 (i.e., employment trends and income inequality) in the transportation industry, organizations and society.

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

The team will also 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,” Cotton said. “With over 40 researchers across the university focused on sociomobility, MSU is the ‘go-to’ place for understanding the impacts of automated vehicles.”

The research team includes Verboncoeur and Savolainen, along with J. Kevin Ford, professor in the Department of Psychology; and Troy Hale, professor of practice in the MSU School of Journalism.

Click here for information on MSU Mobility.

Story and photos courtesy of MSUToday.