At the Aspen Ideas Festival this week, a ton of scientists, artists, executives, and other smart folks are talking about the future. One of the segments is on smart cars, not the brand but driverless cars, and how they will change not only how we drive but how we live. They could obsolete most light rail and subways, many trains, and possibly a number of short hop airlines. Not having to pay attention to driving will result in significant changes to the way we live and, given that this technology is about five years out in most areas, it is time we started anticipating the change.
I’m writing this from California, where one of our major transportation systems is currently down due to a strike. Folks are getting really upset and likely are wishing it was five years in the future and BART were obsolete (or at least the human component of BART).
Picture a World of Self-Driving Cars
Let’s be clear: Once we have technology that will allow cars to drive, this same technology should allow for automated delivery trucks (including door drops), automated emergency response vehicles (I’m thinking for dead batteries or out of gas calls as part of an initial service), and even automated police patrols (with cameras and to supplement officers, and you won’t know which cars actually have officers in them). Coupled with inductive charging areas, these vehicles could run seven days a week and 24 hours a day.
At some point, will we ask ourselves, why own a personal car? After all, you should be able to reserve a ride in advance and have the car waiting for you. Electric power and no driver should mean a relatively low point-to-point cost, and HOV lanes would both likely expand and cater to these automated electric vehicles. In this scenario, though, firms will likely conclude that they need their own fleets to assure conversations are secure while the employee is in transit and that these care are equipped so that employees can ride and work. Whether more than one employee is in each vehicle will likely depend on the economics of the solution and the rank or security risk of the employee.
The number of people currently working as drivers who will end up unemployed will be significant. Problems with labor, particularly organized labor, during the transition should be pronounced as large, often unionized groups become unemployed.
On the other hand, skill sets surrounding building appliances and cars will likely be in higher demand. These jobs are already highly automated, suggesting that there may be additional jobs available tied to these automated solutions, particularly during the transition.
It is certainly possible that we’ll see solutions using these cars and trains in a symbiotic way. The cars may be loaded onto rail cars for longer trips, so that the employee can remain in the car throughout the journey, particularly in Europe, where such solutions exist on some trains today. Meeting places could be computer optimized, based on the relative distance each participant has to travel, taken against their rank (the higher the rank, the more the location might favor them, with the CEO able to take meetings in his or her home).
The ability for more employees to work in driverless cars while commuting to their jobs will probably lead to industries becoming even more comfortable with remote workers, which may increase telecommuting in which employees don’t actually have to come into work at all.
Wrapping Up: Planning for the Future
As company sites are considered, proximity to electrical resources and places for chargers or electric depots should be considered to assure the site doesn’t become prematurely obsolete. Some consideration to which parts of the company are likely to need budget relief to purchase vehicles should be discussed, and practices surrounding telecommuting revisited. Given that massive strikes and demonstrations are likely to occur in areas where there are currently transit hubs, during the transition, perhaps choosing locations away from these hubs would be wise. Other likely locations for major demonstrations are financial and governmental centers; either those locations should be avoided or buildings hardened in anticipation of this event.
Anticipate automation in other areas. Contracts for some services should likely be set to terminate some time during this period to give you the option of automating. Buildings with ramps should be easier for automated equipment to use and you may want to favor people-moving technology that has an open interface so that robots can interact with them, though I expect most of these interfaces will quickly become obsolete anyway.
In the end, I agree that self-driving cars will have a massive effect on how we live and work. I don’t really think we have thought out the effect organizationally or what we’ll do with all of the displaced workers. We have between five and 10 years to prepare for this.
I wouldn’t wait until the end.