So, Do Self-Driving Cars Mean We’ll Work During Our Commutes?

Get ready for more meetings at 65mph

ELECTRICITY MAY BE THE DRIVER! 1950s promotional advertisement for America’s Electric Light and Power Companies

It’s been a standard in the business world for years: With a smartphone or laptop, you can take your work anywhere.

The conventional wisdom of workplace interaction — waking up in the morning, traveling to an office, hunkering down at a desk, and collaborating with coworkers in person — has been flipped on its head. And things are only going to keep changing.

Exhibit A: the self-driving car. They’re coming. The only question is when. So now seems like a good time for the workers of the world to ask: Does getting in a car that drives itself mean you’re already at work?

“In the short term, the biggest difference is going to be that self-driving will make the commute part of the work day,” says Jason Lancaster, an automotive analyst and founder of Spork Marketing. “We have already seen people spending more time outside of work checking email on their phone. It makes sense that cars driving themselves would allow us to do what we are already doing, but in a more designated and all-encompassing fashion.”

Magic Highway, U.S.A. (1958) by Walt Disney included “a realistic look at the road ahead and what tomorrow’s motorists can expect in the years to come.” Predicted innovations included wayfinding, safety mirrors replaced with “television picture”, and “self-driving cars”.

Lancaster himself travels regionally for work, and recounts just how unproductive and time-consuming it is for anyone to make a short business trip.

You drive to the airport and spend an hour checking in, going through security and finding your gate. You only have 20 minutes until the flight leaves — hardly enough time to bust out your laptop and get some work done — and then you board the plane, wait on the tarmac, and finally take off. All for a three- or four-hour flight.

“If my car can drive itself over long distances, why don’t I get in the car, grab my laptop, and get to work?” he told me. “If the cars are relatively cheap and comfortable, it could be easier to travel that way because you could get in the car and work the whole time — a full 12-hour work day. It’s something I think about, honestly,” he continues. “Traveling, by and large, is not productive time, so how can we make it productive time? That’s important to me.”

Illustrations from “Everywoman’s Magazine” Jan. 1956 illustration by H.B.Vestal

But self-driving cars won’t just change how a handful of individual people define the workplace. In the long term, they could change the infrastructure of entire regions.

“We will see situations where some cities will want to be at the forefront of this trend and encourage the infrastructure needed to support self-driving cars,” says Jim Carroll, a futurist, trends, and innovation expert. “That will have bigger implications because companies will want to relocate to where this technology is emerging first.”

If your company does relocate, and your commute gets bumped up a few hours, being able to work while your car drives you to the office would dramatically increase efficiency.

“Right now, there are buses in the Bay Area with wi-fi,” Carroll says. “If you have a three-hour commute to San Jose, you’re fully equipped to jump in on a meeting on that bus. This will be a more personalized extension of that trend. People are already shifting how they work, but autonomous vehicles will push them to shift work in new and different ways. But, before that’s a reality, we will see organizations investing in communities that are open to the intelligent infrastructure that encourages things like auto vehicles. That’s the key to all of this.”

Wedged within logistical changes, too, are psychological shifts. Whereas cars were previously created with a single purpose in mind — traveling from place to place — autonomous vehicles could prove to have a broader use. And, because of that, our understanding of a car’s role in our lives will change. Cars will no longer be seen as something useful for transportation; they will be an integral part of the way companies operate.

Get ready to take a meeting in the fast lane.