Self-driving cars are here. They may not be prevalent yet. They may not be perfect for now. But these free-on-the-wheel vehicles are here, right now, along the road with us humans.

The concept of its technology has been proposed as one of the solutions to the ever growing issue of traffic management. After all, the technology’s applications, when improved further, are quite straightforward.

Remove the error-prone, drunk, distracted, frustrated, and stupid human in the equation, and traffic will soon start flowing like an uninterrupted stream.

However, self-driving vehicle technology is hardly just about sitting on the passenger seat typing away on your Macbook. As we shall soon realize in this short analysis, self-driving vehicles are actually set to penetrate deeper into the global productive workforce than we can ever imagine.

Driverless in all shapes and sizes

The word “self-driving car” instantly brings up an image of an ordinary car that is modified and fitted with various on-board systems and sensors. This isn’t wrong, but this severely limits what we can intuitively think of as a driverless vehicle.

“Automated vehicle” is perhaps the better, more updated term for the concept, as it broadens our horizons on what the technology can do. A vehicle is technically any craft, or anything built and designed for movement and transportation.

Thus any autonomous invention related to such design, whether it is built to carry us, something else, or simply itself, is technically considered as a “self-driving car”. There is nothing too big, or too small, as all vehicles can be automated with more or less the same technology.

Consider some of these automated vehicle breakthroughs over the past few years:

These are not your standard road built machines. They’re not “cars” per se. You can’t sit or ride on them the same way you do on your family sedan. And yet, each of these autonomous vehicles has its own definition of enhancing productivity, namely:

  • Warehouse management becomes robot fleet management, with only one or two human personnel monitoring the bots.

  • Construction-related industries will be “remote controlled”. Efficiency is calculated precisely per energy expended and component used.

  • Item delivery goes completely unmanned. Risk of accident due to human error (is ideally) eliminated. Delivery proceeds with no rest 24/7, so long as the vehicle is fuelled.

  • Ship crew personnel costs are reduced to only repair, mechanical and fuelling maintenance costs. Zero risk to human life during actual military engagements.

  • Ships could eventually be designed completely devoid of corridors and compartments for human use. Integrates with the aforementioned unmanned delivery systems.

Each of these driverless technology breakthroughs affects how we current work, in ways that we are finally just starting to imagine. In fact, this vast range of applications today subsequently leads to the next step for driverless technology: environment optimization.

That is, to make the entire workspace completely conducive to these automated vehicles.

A world without (human) drivers

One of the most common criticisms to self-driving cars is that their algorithms and sensors are far from perfect. They are not currently rated to be capable of analyzing every single action of every human present on the road.

Cases like the driverless shuttle crash in November 2017, and the pedestrian casualty incident in March 2018 serve to prove the point of this criticism. While most opinions generally lean on the side of autonomous vehicles, these incidences do put into question the accidents driverless technologies are designed to prevent in the first place.

This is where the next step of environment optimization comes in. The straightforward solution that many agree upon is to simply remove the human element altogether. In other words, autonomous vehicles only. No random pedestrians, no random drivers.

Up until now, the technology has been designed to cope with our human-optimized environments. Driverless cars roam through the streets designed for human navigation. The end point of warehouse management still falls under a human operator. Unmanned ships would most likely still have to follow human seafaring protocols in order to proceed.

This divide creates an inherently error-prone environment, thus making any accident, driverless or not, an inevitable eventuality.

Indeed, our current iteration of driverless technologies is still not self-sufficient enough. With a well-developed and advanced autonomous vehicle-only environment in the near future, vehicles should be able to coordinate better and more seamlessly than today.This is already more or less already implemented on environments with “simpler traffic”, such as the automated item management system of Amazon’s warehouses.

As for road systems, such a world has very significant benefits over human productivity as well. A few of these that we can perceive today are:

  • No traffic congestion – a coordinated flow of driverless car traffic would not need to account for sudden and/or unscheduled stops.

  • More traffic capacity – With almost zero vehicle traffic, more vehicles can be on the road at any given point in time. More vehicles, more capacity for transport.

  • Higher speed limits – Since all driverless cars are in sync, speed limits can be increased. Travel time gets much shorter.

This sets up a rather interesting view of the future where editing your documents to work might actually be a less likely scenario. It is then highly more probable that office hours would simply be readjusted. The urban setting provided by such a driverless world would ironically reduce the time wasted on commuting to just a minimal wait period.

Wanis Kabbaj, director of global strategy for healthcare logistics at UPS, presented a TED talk in which he described how road traffic should act like the human circulatory system. According to him, an ideal driverless world is where each vehicle moves and coordinates like a single harmoniously circulating red blood cell.

His vision emphasizes not just the elimination of the human element, but the removal wholesale of human-centric elements such as traffic lights, lanes, or even intersections. It will be like how we moved from us producing our own food, to just a portion of our industries producing food for the masses. From us driving our own cars, to just portion of our industries providing (automated) transport to the masses.

Will there be other more unpredictable sweeping changes to our way of living as the wheel slips away from our hands completely? For us “monkeys”, we just have to wait and see.

Photo by Jp Valery on Unsplash.

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