Telecommuting in the automated driving age

There has been lots of news recently about automated driving. Teslas on autopilot, driverless (sort of) Ubers, all the main auto manufacturers developing self-driving cars. How is all this driverless driving likely to affect telecommuting? After all, telecommuting was invented as a way to reduce time- and energy-wasting commuting. What if the commuters of the (near) future can sit back and telecommute en route?

I originally started thinking about telecommuting in response to the question: why can’t you [rocket scientists] do something about traffic? The point being that growing traffic congestion, in the 1970s, had become a source of air pollution, reduced productivity, energy dissipation and a whole host of other undesirable things.  My reasoning was:

  • Commuting to/from work is a major component of traffic congestion;
  • at least half of the commuters are information workers;
  • much of information work is fundamentally independent of where the worker is;
  • technology advances are making that location independence possible and inexpensive;
  • so get those information workers out of their cars by allowing them to telecommute;
  • hence, greatly reduced traffic congestion because of all those cars not on the road.

Well, that was the idea then. As it turned out, one of the greatest impediments to all this was the insistence on regular face-to-face interaction as part of contemporary business culture. So most of the information workers still had to go to work most days in order to go to work. And air pollution, reduced productivity, energy dissipation and that whole host of other undesirable things continued although, as technology improved, the need for regular face-to-face interaction became less and less apparent. Telecommuting grew in acceptance and was being adopted worldwide. Without it today, traffic congestion would be much, much worse.

So, in the next few decades, as cars become more automated and less dependent on fossil fuels, information workers may still be able to do their work while going to work. Teleworking en route. Traffic congestion will be reduced because traffic flow will be smoother, thanks to the autopilots. Energy used in commuting will drop as the cars become more efficient and air pollution will proportionally diminish.

But the question remains: why do many of these information workers think that they need to commute to work every day?

  • Fear of losing one’s job or promotion (I’m nervous);
  • Need for face-to-face social interaction (I’m lonely);
  • Need to change surroundings and/or get out of the house (I’m bored);

Those are the top three reasons given by employees. Each reason is affected by the quality of the information technology supporting telecommuting in particular and telework in general. The better and more pervasive the technology is, the more likely telecommuting will be unaffected by automated driving. So we have an interesting contest coming up: information technology affecting the ease and safety of commuting versus information technology decreasing the need for commuting.

Either way, we all win. Stay tuned.

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