Self-driving vehicles may have limited impact on productivity, say researchers

One of the many anticipated benefits of self-driving cars is the potential for increased productivity during the morning commute. For drivers used to sitting in stop-start traffic, the idea of being able to use their time more effectively is an appealing one.

However, suggests a recent study, drivers may not be quite ready to switch off once they hand over control to a self-driving car.

The report from the University of Michigan – “Would Self-Driving Vehicles Increase Occupant Productivity?” – found that 36% of Americans say they would be so apprehensive in self-driving cars, they would continue to watch the road.

Meanwhile, another 23% say that they would not ride in self-driving vehicles, while 3% would expect to regularly experience some level of motion sickness in a driverless car.

As a result, say the report’s authors, Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle, autonomous vehicles are unlikely to result in an improvement in productivity for about 62% of Americans.

Currently, in the U.S., the average occupant of a light-duty vehicle spends about an hour a day traveling-time that could potentially be put to more productive use.

Indeed, increased productivity is one of the expected benefits of self-driving vehicles.
— Michael Sivak, research professor at the U–M Transportation Research Institute

Other drivers, however, are excited about the extra productivity offered by self-driving vehicles.

The research found that among those who see themselves taking advantage of the extra time, about 11% would read, 7% would sleep, 6% would watch films or TV, 5% would work and 2% would play games.



Another 10% plan to undertake an activity widely prohibited for today's drivers: texting or talking with family and friends.

Sivak, research professor at the U-M Transportation Research Institute, said: “Currently, in the U.S., the average occupant of a light-duty vehicle spends about an hour a day traveling-time that could potentially be put to more productive use. 

“Indeed, increased productivity is one of the expected benefits of self-driving vehicles.” 

The research highlights another challenge for the makers of driverless cars: the need to rethink how passengers would be protected in some of the less traditional positions being considered for self-driving vehicles – for example, facing backwards or lying down.

The authors also highlight the potential for untethered objects, such as laptops, to act as projectiles in the event of an accident.

The potential for greater productivity in autonomous vehicles faces one further risk, noted the researchers. The typical vehicle trip lasts an average of 19 minutes – making it too short for sustained periods of productivity or truly refreshing sleep.