Why driverless cars probably won’t make us any more productive

Maybe not so safe.
Business Insider

One of the biggest desires connected to self-driving cars is the possibility that time currently consumed by commuting will be available for working.

Hands on the wheel and eyes on the road will be replaced with fingers on a keyboard and eyes on a spreadsheet.

Unless, that is, you’re woozy from nausea, dodging a flying iPhone 10, or having you’re bones broken because you’re facing in the wrong direction in a collision.

Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the University of Michigan specialize in studying advanced transportation technology, and they just released a new report titled “Would Self-Driving Vehicles Increase Occupant Productivity?”

The answer to that question, unfortunately, is no – at least during the initial arrival of fully autonomous cars.

“The data presented in this white paper indicate that for about 62% of Americans, self-driving vehicles currently are not likely to result in an improvement in productivity,” the researchers write.

“This is the case because 23% indicated they would not ride in such vehicles, and 36% would be so apprehensive in such vehicles that they would only watch the road. Furthermore, out of the remaining 41%, around 8% would frequently experience some level of motion sickness-for an additional 3% of occupants.”

Unsafe at any speed?

There are other problems that the authors explore. Modern vehicles are designed and engineered to protect occupants when those occupants are seating in specific positions. Cars, in fact, aim you toward their safety features, such as airbags.

If passengers are reconfigured inside the vehicle, they’ll no longer be properly arranged to be protected from the violent physical forces that occur during a crash. This means that unless self-driving cars will be built in pretty much the same way as cars we use right now, a century of safety-focused engineering will have to be reworked.

A ride in a Google self-driving car.
Google Media/screenshot

Any device not integrated with the vehicle would also have to be tied down, lest it become a dangerous flying projectile in an accident.

Sivak and Schoettle’s findings are a good example of how any radical rethinking of how we do something now, on a massive scale (such as driving), has to be considered systemically. Self-driving cars might not be the productivity bonanza that some have predicted – unless the vehicles are reimagined to be a place for work, sleeping, or distraction that can ensure occupant safety on existing roads.

This could be a tough nut to crack. But designers are trained to solve problems – it’s the key skill of their profession – so although there may not be sudden productivity gains from autonomous vehicles, they could arrive over time as the physical layout of cars changes.