Elon Musk predicting 1,000,000 robo taxis on the road by 2020? Admittedly this does seem a bit far fetched but with 5.6 million electric vehicles on the road worldwide with the Tesla Model 3 as the world’s best-selling all-electric vehicle model it is wise not to count Elon Musk out. But whether it is 2020, 2021, 2025 or 2030 it is difficult to argue a future of driverless cars is not upon us. To me, this is significant beyond a measure of convenience and safety but a societal rethinking that could change the nature of work, open new doors of discovery, and alter the future planning of our cities for the better. A new means of moving people more intently and purposefully through the real world while reducing the environmental cost of moving them. No doubt many will worry about a future without their hands on the wheel but seeds of progress are rarely easily understood at first.
“One of the most contemptible soul-destroying and devitalizing pursuits that the ill-fortune of misguided humanity has ever imposed upon its credulity.”~~~C.M. Joad – British Philosopher on the arrival of the automobile.
So what are the risks to mitigate and opportunities to explore in a driverless future and how could this new reality propel a better future forward?
There is no way around the fact that millions of professional drivers in the U.S. alone will be displaced. A reality bearing down heavily on local, regional, and national economies. Yes, it is likely the driverless industry will create new jobs as demand grows and jobs will not disappear overnight but it should be incumbent on the industry to invest in retraining and job placement programs for displaced drivers as the market evolves.
Safety is also a significant risk attached to the driverless industry as automated vehicles begin to assimilate into the flow of traffic throughout the world. But through advancements in sensor technology, artificial intelligence, and data collected from millions of hands-free miles driven, it is only a matter of time before tech beats out the limited awareness of the human driver.
Removing the steering wheel is continually offered as a solution for driverless vehicles but beyond the obvious risk of being taken hostage by your car, there are much more nuanced risks involved. Yes destinations can be programmed and voice commands given but how do you articulate serendipity? Hailing a Robo taxi to a destination is one thing but as driverless vehicles become ubiquitous taking our hands off of choice could allow for our journeys to be influenced by outside forces.
So where do the opportunities lie in harnessing the potential of driverless tech to empower the commuter experience? To literally help drive the human experience forward?
Raising Prospects of Low Wage Earners
A reduction in commuter cost per mile could help low-income workers find new opportunities to increase wages. As transportation costs continue to fall based on the efficiencies of the driverless model (15 cents/mile estimated by some), opportunities could surface to lift the disadvantaged into this connection of movement. Whether it is a low wage worker being able to take a job they could affordably commute to, supplement their income with local gigs not possible with a car payment and gas expenditures, or allow someone on a fixed income to make a medical appointment on the other side of town, the reduced barriers of cost alone could help emerge capabilities from commuters like no other time in the history of transportation.
How will cities evolve when parking is no longer attached to the destination? A new reality bringing both risks and opportunities where driverless cars in constant circulation could increase traffic congestion but at the same time free up valuable real estate for pedestrian-friendly common areas and sidewalks. Either way, commuters will be spending less time parking vehicles and walking to destinations and more time engaging around their destinations which could inspire community-focused planning. Could we see a resurgence of Main Street style planning with cobblestone streets heavily populated by mom and pop retailers and niche service providers? Only time will tell.
As the workforce begins to adopt driverless tech, work will become less of a place and more of a journey, especially as the gig and sharing economy continues to break apart conventional means of work as a container for workers to fit into. I would call this more of a catalyst for progress than a disrupter of industry as when labor becomes more productive and engaged in the marketplace how could industry not benefit? Whether workers are spending more quality facetime with customers, vendors, or associates, are liberated from the confines of cubicles and bullpens, or supplementing their income by leasing out their vehicle to a driverless fleet, how could it be argued better work will not come from better engagement and better work environments for workers? Driverless tech has the potential to reimagine a future of workers empowered through mobility, the question is will employers embrace this as a means to improve the quality of the worker and customer experiences or fight it to protect measures of control?
Environmental Impact Reduced
For every autonomous vehicle to hit the streets running off of electric power or fuel cells optimized for efficiency of operation through route choice and acceleration patterns, a reduction in environmental impact should occur. Even though energy consumption may increase as more miles are traveled through the convenience and affordability of self-driving automation, pollutants from emissions will decrease as gasoline engines are replaced with clean-burning alternatives. The birth of a new form of decentralized energy distribution may also arise as autonomous vehicles begin to transfer excess energy collected and generated between destinations. In the end, an increase in demand for energy-efficient, clean-burning driverless vehicles could usher in a new era of transportation serving as more of a partner with mother earth than a competitor.
I write about the emergent capabilities of technology to empower human engagement and see driverless technologies as a means to encourage discovery in the real world. How many historical markers are within driving distance? How many live venues? How many interesting lectures? How many friends or family members are within driving distance but are not visited due to limitations of cost, time, or motivation? A reduction in cost per commuter mile, replacing drive time with productive time, and improving the commuter experience online could remove these limitations but influence wielded outside of commuter interests could weigh heavily on this potential. Interests possibly co-opted as the attention of the driver moves away from the road to car windows and smart devices overlaying information over their journey. Will this overlay become a pop-up laden, ad-heavy experience as we see with the centralized web today or a resonant experience where the commuter is empowered by the connection rather than being controlled by it?
People will continue to drive well into the future just as people will continue to read paper bound books but as driverless tech continues to evolve into our communities, driving will move from more of a need to a choice. This, I believe will help usher in a new era of a cleaner and more resonant model of transportation engaging and empowering commuters rather than distracting them. A future optimized for the safety and inspired actions of commuters while reducing the environmental impact of their travels.
What is possible when commutes become opportunities to learn, to be entertained, and to be more purposeful rather than a means to an end? What is possible when people are spending more time walking and exploring around their destinations than looking for parking? What is possible when the power of the online connection motivates commuters to discover the real world more intently? Admittedly, there are many obstacles in the way of a better commuter experience through driverless technologies but as with any revolutionary societal breakthroughs, the journey can be a bit messy. The question is what we can learn from past mistakes to make certain we are ready for this future?