being able to work while your car drives you to the office would dramatically increase efficiency.
So, Do Self-Driving Cars Mean We’ll Work During Our Commutes?
Ian Frisch

Would it, though? You seem pretty positive and upbeat about all this, but there’s something about it that strikes me as a bit… dystopian.

Mobile tech has already given companies unprecedented access to workers on their off-hours. As work encroaches more and more on our lives, there’s away that you could view the commute as one of the last bastions of legitimate, socially-acceptable unavailability.

Lancaster sounds almost breathlessly excited at the thought of working in the car so that he can squeeze in a “full 12-hour work day” — or, put another way, so that employers can extract more time from their employees, and therefore presumably more productivity. Except that research consistently shows that working longer hours doesn’t necessarily translate into proportional gains in efficiency or productivity:

For starters, [overworking] doesn’t seem to result in more output. In a study of consultants by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, managers could not tell the difference between employees who actually worked 80 hours a week and those who just pretended to. While managers did penalize employees who were transparent about working less, Reid was not able to find any evidence that those employees actually accomplished less, or any sign that the overworking employees accomplished more.
[…] Numerous studies by Marianna Virtanen of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and her colleagues (as well as other studies) have found that overwork and the resulting stress can lead to all sorts of health problems, including impaired sleep, depression, heavy drinking, diabetes, impaired memory, and heart disease. Of course, those are bad on their own. But they’re also terrible for a company’s bottom line, showing up as absenteeism, turnover, and rising health insurance costs. Even the Scroogiest of employers, who cared nothing for his employees’ well-being, should find strong evidence here that there are real, balance-sheet costs incurred when employees log crazy hours.
If your job relies on interpersonal communication, making judgment calls, reading other people’s faces, or managing your own emotional reactions — pretty much all things that the modern office requires — I have more bad news. Researchers have found that overwork (and its accompanying stress and exhaustion) can make all of these things more difficult.

Now, you could argue that commute-working isn’t necessarily equivalent to overworking: you might work the same number of hours per week, but by shifting some of them over to the commute, you’d have more free time overall. Given trends in average working hours over the past few decades (Americans today work longer hours than at any time since we started recording statistics on the subject), I don’t think that expectation is particularly realistic, but it’s worth considering.

Even if you don’t just work more, by introducing work to the commute you’re going to be losing one of the only daily periods where your connectivity flickers. When I drive to work, I’m not checking my email. I’m just driving. I’m performing a task where (a) I can’t multitask, but (b) my full attention really isn’t engaged, either. It’s a time where you can — where you kind of have to — let your mind wander. You know, daydream a bit.

[While] it’s obvious that our devices make us more productive in some ways, what’s less obvious is an important way they can actually harm our productivity: by interfering with mind-wandering, also known as daydreaming.
When we turn to our devices every time we get bored or find a break in the flow of work, we keep ourselves constantly processing new information. Being “always on” like this can make us less productive because it can block the brain processes that occur when we let our minds wander. Neuroscience and psychology research show that mind-wandering facilitates creativity, planning, and putting off immediate desires in favor of future rewards.

I get it — self-driving cars are coming. A lot of the consequences will probably be pretty cool. But eliminating one of the times when we’re relatively unavailable and disconnected — and consequently giving employers yet another opening to pressure salaried workers to tack a couple of bonus hours onto their workday — doesn’t seem like one them.