The Fuse

Increased Worker Productivity One More Benefit of Autonomy

by Matt Piotrowski | September 16, 2016

The huge benefits that society will gain from transitioning to driverless cars are well established. Safety will significantly increase; certain segments of the population such as the disabled will gain access to mobility; fuel economy will improve greatly; pollution will likely decline; and the use of infrastructure will become more efficient. One other potential advantage of driverless cars that’s overlooked will be increased productivity for passengers. Those riding in autonomous vehicles will have the opportunity to sit back, relax, watch movies, perform tasks for work out of the office, make phone calls, play video games, read books, or even sleep instead of paying attention to the road ahead.

Those riding in autonomous vehicles will have the opportunity to sit back, relax, watch movies, perform tasks for work out of the office, make phone calls, play video games, read books, or even sleep instead of paying attention to the road ahead.

Some critics are skeptical that driverless cars will bring about such a boon for consumers. Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute say in a recently released white paper that a majority of consumers will not see an improvement in productivity from autonomy. The main factors that will undermine productivity: 1) a number won’t ride in such a vehicle; 2) those in autonomous cars will be too nervous to shift attention away from the road; and 3) motion sickness will hinder the ability to be productive.

Their analysis doesn’t take into account how attitudes will eventually shift over time. Moreover, they fail to look broadly at the amount of time drivers and passengers spend in cars nowadays or commuters spend on public transportation. They also don’t note the fact that autonomous vehicles can help alleviate congestion, which would add to overall more free time for Americans, and in turn allow them to be more productive, in both their work and home lives.

With Americans spending 75 billion hours per year driving, productivity gains would amount to more than $500 billion per year with autonomous cars.

Much of the research so far on autonomous vehicles runs counter to their claims. A number of Americans do, of course, like the experience of driving and won’t want to use autonomous cars. But operating a vehicle is a burden and takes up a large amount of time and energy, making the new technology more attractive to skeptics. Many consumers, once they see the benefits of giving up the steering wheel, will embrace the extra time for themselves or for work. Morgan Stanley highlighted in a report a last year that with Americans spending 75 billion hours per year driving, productivity gains would amount to more than $500 billion per year with autonomous cars. Emilio Frazzoli, Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT and the co-founder of nuTonomy, writing in the MIT Technology Review, puts the estimate higher, saying that the benefits to society in way of increased productivity for both work and leisure would be roughly $1.2 trillion per year.

The fact that roads are congested in many parts of the country provides increased opportunity for autonomous vehicles to boost quality of life and overall productivity. With the adoption of improved navigation services and connected vehicle technology, driverless cars have the potential to relieve congestion, allowing commuters to not lose office time due to traffic. Even if congestion isn’t fully nixed as a result of transportation changes, passengers in autonomous vehicles can use the time to work constructively.

Congestion looks to only worsen in the coming years, making the transition to autonomy crucial. A report a couple of years ago from INRIX, a real-time traffic information service, highlights the dangers of gridlock in the future. The researchers estimate that Americans could end up wasting $2.8 trillion from now until 2030 as a result of traffic congestion. The average costs for families are expected to rise by a third over the next decade and a half amid a rise in population and more cars on the roads.

To be sure, a majority of consumers are skeptical of autonomous technology and the economic value of productivity is difficult to measure. The extra free time in the car would naturally boost work productivity, but what if the time is used more for leisure activities?

“There’s clearly an upside for productivity from using AV technology, but it’s difficult to make a value judgment and measure the full economic value.”

“There’s clearly an upside for productivity from using AV technology,” Scott Corwin of Deloitte Consulting and leader of the Future of Mobility practice told The Fuse, “but it’s difficult to make a value judgment and measure the full economic value. It depends on your definition of productivity, whether it includes personal or work related and if leisure time counts?”

Although leisure activities don’t provide the same economic significance as work productivity, they do create commercial opportunities. For instance, demand for media and entertainment content on smartphones, tablets, and laptops would increase, providing more advertising and sales opportunities. Moreover, stores and services could see an uptick in sales from increased mobility for shoppers, providing another economic benefit. In other words, the possibilities for consumers and commercial entities will rise with improved mobility and less stress from not having to sit behind the wheel and navigate through traffic.

Sivak and Schoettle state that for self-driving cars to bring about the productivity gains that are envisioned, passengers need to have confidence in the vehicles, the issue of motion sickness has to be addressed, and occupants must be comfortable and safe in their seats. Naturally, these issues will be addressed in time. While a segment of the population will always remain resistant to transitioning to autonomous vehicles, the massive gains in safety, efficiency, and productivity will ultimately shift consumer attitudes, and passengers will enjoy the extra time they gain from having the machine take control.

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