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Will Self-Driving Cars Make Us More Productive? Probably Not

We need to completely rethink the design of car interiors if we're going to ever let go of the wheel and use that time for other tasks.

Will Self-Driving Cars Make Us More Productive? Probably Not

[Photo: Markus Bernhard/Getty Images]

What will we get up to in our cars when they drive themselves and we have nothing to do? A new study looks at the possibility that we will use the time to be more productive, spending those saved minutes on work tasks, hacking through our to-do lists, and getting things done. It finds this is unlikely.

The paper, from Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle of the Transportation Research Institute at the University of Michigan, finds that the self-driving car will be a pretty bad place for getting productive, thanks to three main problems. One is that many U.S. citizens won’t be able to get any work done. According to previous studies by the authors, 23% refuse to ride in an autonomous car, 36% think they would be so scared that they’d do nothing but watch the road, and a handful suffer from motion sickness. In total, that’s 62% of U.S. citizens who won’t get anything done.

Another concern is design. Cars as they are now just aren’t built for working in. They’re designed to keep us safe and comfortable, not for using a notebook computer. And what happens in a crash? Take a look at your desk, and then imagine all that junk flying around the cabin during a collision. Your keyboard could end up between your face and your airbag, for example.

[Photo: Ron Bailey/Getty Images]

The final reason is the most compelling. The average journey is just too short to get much done other than checking Twitter or Facebook some friends.

In time, we'll get used to our cars doing the driving. We may be terrified to begin with, but humans are pretty good at getting bored and acclimatizing to perceived risk. Look at air travel for a great example of that.

Right now we all face forwards, and safety features like airbags and seatbelt are designed with this position in mind. In the fully autonomous vehicles of the future, we no longer need to sit in front-facing rows. We could have beds, or easy chairs, or seats that allow us to face other passengers. But, says the report, "not only would many of these nontraditional positions and postures vary considerably from the optimum for which the restraint systems were designed, some of them also have the potential to be near-worst-case positions or postures."

Safety, then, will have to be re-thought as cars morph to fit their new purposes. But that, too, can be solved. The biggest barrier to productivity then, is that we just don’t spend that much time in our cars. Or rather, while we spend an average of an hour per day driving around, the average journey only lasts 19 minutes (around 9.5 miles)—not enough time to open up a spreadsheet and start deciding on the best font to use for that report.

Perhaps, then, we should forget about being productive in our cars. We could just read (those of us who don’t get motion sickness, anyway), or catch up with friends, or just gaze out the window at the world passing by. After all, not every second of every day needs to be productive.

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