Lyft’s head of operations has an interesting new metaphor for the ride-hailing drivers that power the company’s service.

Speaking at the Smart Cities conference in New York on Tuesday, chief operating officer Jon McNeill compared drivers today, facing an impending revolution from autonomous technology, to the telephone switchboard workers of decades past.

“In the early 70s, you couldn’t make a long-distance call because the local phone network had separate hardware from the long-distance phone number, so a human being, an operator, had to literally connect those two networks for you to make a long-distance call,” he said. “There were hundreds of thousands of operators employed around the country helping people make long-distance calls.”

Eventually, technology advanced that allowed networks to be connected by software, negating the need for someone to physically connect calls. That’s when the digital operator took over.

“Something happened when software would allow long-distance calls and that was you could dial an 800 number, but you needed somebody on the other end of those calls,” McNeill continued. “So overnight, hundreds of thousands of operator jobs were replaced literally with millions of call center jobs.”

In the same fashion, McNeill said that while the rise of autonomous vehicles could create the need for other types of high-paying jobs, including mechanics.

“As autonomous cars come into play, they will be utilized 20 times more than a car is today, meaning they will wear out twenty times faster, meaning that there will be 20 times the demand for mechanics,” McNeill said. “A mechanic job pays quite a bit more than a driving job.”

“So in the future when that flip happens and the lines cross between human driven cars and autonomous cars there will be a boon in other kinds of jobs, namely mechanics that are going to be needed as these physical parts wear out a lot faster,” he continued.

Luckily for drivers, hundreds of which are angry with Lyft (and its larger competitor Uber) for what they see as falling pay and poor treatment in their classification as independent contractors, fully self-driving cars are likely still years, if not decades, away. Lyft’s self-driving service in Las Vegas, for instance, has provided more than 40,000 rides so far, all under the watchful eye of safety drivers. Waymo’s commercial robo-taxi service, Waymo One, is also still monitored by in-car backup drivers.

In the interim years, Lyft expects to work with both autonomous taxis — as it announced with a Waymo partnership last week — and traditional human drivers.

“We’ve got a future that’s driver based,” McNeill told Business Insider in an April interview. “What our research shows is that, even with autonomy starting to be deployed over the next few years, we’ll need more drivers in five years than we have today. And we’ll need more drivers in 10 years than we need in five years.”

~source