Self-driving cars and undocumented immigration

Technology has altered migration patterns many times. New modes of transportation– railroads, faster and safer ships, cars, airplanes– made migration cheaper and easier. The internet and cheap international telephony have made it easier for migrants to stay plugged in to their home countries, and possibly discourage assimilation among migrants, though on the other hand, modern technology and cultural globalization probably encourage pre-assimilation. The internet also encourages international dating. What about the next transportation technology that seems to be in the pipeline, self-driving cars?

It’s always hard to foresee how new technologies will change society, the economy, and people’s way of life. But I’ll try. Self-driving cars probably won’t crowd out private car ownership anytime soon, but they will make it optional. A car sitting in a parking space is a waste. It’s a waste of both the car and the parking space. The taxi cab model uses cars and space more efficiently, but of course, it’s labor-intensive. Labor is expensive. That’s why even a short cab ride can cost $10-$15 or more. But a self-driving taxi cab could be much cheaper. In some ways, it would be more convenient as well. Presumably you could summon one with a smartphone, and order it to drop you off at the entrance of wherever it is you want to go. If you’ve been drinking, no problem. Also, you’re not require to drive the same car, day in, day out. Cab companies, with a much larger volume of business, could offer a large selection. Got a big load? Order a roomier vehicle. By yourself? Order a miniature one-car cab. Electric cars might benefit, because people wouldn’t suffer from “range anxiety.” Smartphones plus self-driving cars might allow for sophisticated forms of carpooling, with minivans planning out complex routes on the fly so as to serve many customers at the same time. Some parking lots would turn back into green spaces. It’s hard to say whether cities or suburbs will benefit more. Currently, it’s suburbanites who have to bear the burdens of car ownership. City dwellers can do without them, relying on public transit instead. On the other hand, city dwellers may be very glad to be able to get out of town at will, and to take a self-driving cab when they’re in a hurry, or late at night, instead of navigating buses and metros.

What does this have to do with immigration?

1. If long-distance cargo transport came to be dominated by self-driving trucks, that might complicate border control. Currently, it’s probably not too difficult for a US citizen to bring someone in by car across the Mexican border, hiding them in the trunk, say. But it’s risky, because if the driver gets caught, they can be punished. (I can’t seem to find out what the punishment is, but I think it’s pretty serious.) But what if there’s no driver? Maybe you could punish the owner, but what if you can’t find the owner, or can’t find out who the owner is? Or what if the owner says the illegal immigrant was there without his knowledge or permission?

2. Once undocumented immigrants arrive, one of the things that makes life difficult for them is that they might not be able to get drivers’ licenses. But in the age of self-driving cars, drivers’ licenses will no longer be a sine qua non of modern life, even in the suburbs. Many natives may not bother to get them. Undocumented immigrants will do just fine without them. They’ll have an unprecedented range of movement, without needing the fake papers.

3. Professions that involve home visits may be especially facilitated by self-driving cars. In jobs that involve a lot of time on the road, not having to be behind the wheel will be an immense blessing. The stressful and boring time spent watching the road can be spent socializing on Facebook, or studying, or watching movies, or taking classes, or maybe even doing some kind of paid work that can be done on a smartphone. Since undocumented workers seem disproportionately to be involved in driving-intensive jobs– housecleaning, landscaping, etc.– self-driving cars will make their lifestyles pleasanter. Perhaps that will even lure more of them to come. Those professions will also be easier to get into when one will no longer need a car, or a driver’s license.

Nathan Smith is an assistant professor of economics at Fresno Pacific University. He did his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University and has also worked for the World Bank. Smith proposed Don’t Restrict Immigration, Tax It, one of the more comprehensive keyhole solution proposals to address concerns surrounding open borders.

See also:

Page about Nathan Smith on Open Borders
All blog posts by Nathan Smith

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