Expecting a productivity increase from your self-driving car? Think again

Bruce Brown
Expecting a productivity increase from your self-driving car? Think again
Self-driving cars may increase safety and mobility, but occupant productivity gains aren't likely anytime soon, say University of Michigan researchers. Driver perception, motion sickness, and safety issues must be addressed first.

Don’t expect dramatic productivity boosts from self-driving cars. While these vehicles may increase safety and mobility, occupant productivity gains aren’t likely anytime soon. Driver perception, motion sickness, and safety issues must be addressed first, say University of Michigan researchers.

According to a study just released by the University of Michigan’s Sustainable Worldwide Transportation group, car rides in the U.S. are too brief for significant productive engagement. The authors of the study, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, analyzed data of trip patterns. They found that for privately-owned light duty vehicles, which includes cars, vans, SUVs, and pickup trucks, overall trip length averaged just 9.5 miles and 18.6 minutes. That’s too short for most people to settle down and get much work done.

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Beyond the theoretical free time gained while vehicles drive themselves, other factors among people worldwide rule out much occupant productivity.  Schoettle and Sivak posed the following question to 3,255 people in the U.S., Australia, China, India, Japan, and the U.K., “If you were to ride in a completely self-driving vehicle, what do you think you would use the extra time doing instead of driving?”

Most relevant to the purpose of the question were people who said, “I would not ride in a self-driving vehicle” or “Watch the road even though I would not be driving.” Those two responses were selected by 58.5 percent of the Americans surveyed. If they wouldn’t ride in a self-driving car in the first place or stop watching the road, there’s no way they could focus on work. Only 4.8 percent of U.S. respondents said they’d use the time to do work.

Of the 41.5 percent of Americans who would ride in self-driving vehicles and not watch the road, 8 percent said they would frequently experience some form of motion sickness. So don’t expect those folks to focus on a spreadsheet in a moving vehicle.

Two other concerns arose from the Michigan study. The survey participants indicated they did not believe current occupant protection systems work for the nontraditional postures and positions people would assume if they were working in the car. There’s also a concern that untethered objects such as mobile devices could become dangerous projectiles in the event of a crash.

As passenger comfort and confidence in self-driving cars increase over time, productivity gains may be possible if the safety and motion sickness issues are addressed. But that change won’t occur quickly. Plus, it appears if we really want to be productive in cars, we need, on average, longer commutes. All in favor?