These days, talk of driverless cars or autonomous vehicles (AVs) is everywhere. Every month seems to bring a fresh development, whether it’s news of the first traffic stop for a Google driverless car or Tesla offering an upgrade to its cars that enhances them with a limited degree of autonomous driving capability – over the internet. Although the technological trajectory is clear, there remains much uncertainty about whether and how this technology will be implemented. Huge legal and ethical questions remain to be worked out. Even less certain is what the broader societal impacts will be if driverless cars are deployed at scale. What, for instance, might it mean for the future world of work? Imagine this. In 2030, autonomous vehicles have become mainstream. Their convenience, safety and low cost, and government incentives, have hastened their adoption. Some people own AVs, while others rely on increasingly popular autonomous mobility services. These provide seamless and highly intelligent mobility with no hassle and no need to own and maintain a car. New revenue models, such as subscriptions and advertising-supported services, have made these mobility services nearly free.
AVs are also much safer than conventional vehicles: the accident rate, and its toll on public health and the medical system, has declined steeply. Nearly all road accidents now are caused by humans driving conventional cars – or, very occasionally, by hackers and terrorists. Citizen sentiment has started to turn in favour of eliminating conventional cars altogether as a matter of public safety.
Most AVs are fully electric, which has dramatically improved air quality in many cities. AVs also optimise road space and driving time. The number of cars on the road is much lower, and those that are in circulation are used at a high rate. Street parking has been largely eliminated. AVs either remain in circulation to serve other passengers or plug into charging stations on the outskirts of cities to refuel and provide load balancing to the grid. With fewer cars and automated route planning, traffic congestion has also been largely eliminated.
AVs have reshaped urban development. Light rail and bus systems have become redundant, and are o en underfunded and falling into disrepair. Cities have sprawled outwards, as fast and easy mobility has made it less important to live and work near the city centre. Biking has become much safer. Large parts of cities once dedicated to traffic or parking are now bike lanes, pedestrian malls or green spaces. Trains and planes are still used for longer trips. Operations and logistics have also been impacted, with nearly all long-haul trucks now being autonomous. Consumer behaviour inside cars has radically changed. AVs are places to work, relax with entertainment and socialise with friends, and for sightseeing. Most offer food and drink ‘minibars’, and ‘bar cars’ are a new fad. AVs are commonly used as virtual-reality environments for watching TV, holding meetings or socialising with friends around the world. AVs have also significantly improved mobility for the young, the elderly and the disabled.
What might this mean for the future of work?
In this possible version of the future, the mainstreaming of AVs will likely impact where and when we work, as well as who is doing the working. Here are some speculative ideas about what the implications might be for white-collar urban jobs.
Where might we work? To the extent that AVs make transportation in cars significantly easier and less congested than it is now, incentives may diminish for people to live, work and socialise in dense city cores. In such a scenario, businesses are likely to seek out cheaper rents on the outskirts of cities without having to worry as much about the willingness of workers to follow. Rather than suburban sprawl, perhaps we’ll see significantly larger but lower- density, and more affordable, cities.
Second, it will affect when we work. For better or worse, commuting and working may become ever more tightly intertwined. The AV of 2030 is likely to feature a highly sophisticated virtual-reality cockpit that will enable passengers to interact with other people – colleagues for example – in a seamless and real-seeming fashion. While some of this is already available to people who commute by train, AVs could offer a wholly different level of privacy and immersion. Taking meetings while in the car will become commonplace. Part of the promise that present-day AV enthusiasts point to is the idea that driverless cars will become places of leisure and recreation. Perhaps so. But it seems equally possible that our work life will cannibalise our personal life to an even greater extent – and that someday we may feel nostalgic for the blissfully solitary commute.
Finally, it is likely to change who is doing the working. On the downside, most people who make their living, as drivers will see their jobs disappear. However, even more people are likely to see their access – to work and to the world at large – increase. The elderly, the disabled and those with a large caretaker role (including many mothers) may find themselves able to access the workforce in a way that they currently cannot. Just as appliances like the washing machine and the vacuum cleaner promised to liberate women from the drudgery of housework, could driverless cars ‘liberate’ soccer moms to become office workers? Increased access facilitated by AVs may also reinforce trends we’re currently experiencing around increased lifespan, new medical interventions and later retirement. Might improved access to mobility result in a significantly more diverse workforce?
The rise of automated vehicles
In June 2011, Nevada became the first jurisdiction in the world where autonomous vehicles might be legally operated on public roads.
In 2014, the UK Government started testing the Lutz Pathfinder prototype pod on public roads.
The Dutch city of Wageningen began testing a fleet of autonomous shuttle buses in December 2015.
By early 2017, the US Department of Transportation hopes to publish a rule mandating a new vehicle-to-ve- hicle (V2V) communication protocol.
Researchers estimate that driverless cars could, by mid-century, reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90%. This means that, using the number of fatalities in 2013 as a baseline, self-driving cars could save 29,447 lives a year. In the US alone, that’s nearly 300,000 fatalities prevented over the course of a decade.
It is projected that autonomous vehicles could reduce the need for parking space in the US by more than 5.7 billion square metres (approximately the area of Cyprus).
This article draws on insights from a project with the global beverage alcohol giant Diageo. Forum for the Future developed a set of seven ‘futures propositions’ that explored one possible take on the potentially major implications of different issues for the beverage alcohol industry, including the world of work.
Image credit: Jonathan / Flickr