Technology

Drive time: how will autonomous vehicles affect the future of work?

Driverless cars have the potential to reshape our cities. But what are the implications for our workforces and workplaces? WORKTECH Academy asked a panel of experts at the London Transport Museum

The emergence of autonomous vehicles represents the most significant change in transport since the transition from horse-drawn carriages to motorised cars. And with the first driverless vehicles expected to be publicly available from 2020, governments, cities and companies around the world are already contemplating the potential for massive change to our urban environment.

The underlying question about working life remains unanswered

But while the driverless technology itself provokes the fullest spectrum of hopes and fears, the underlying question of how autonomous vehicles will affect the world of work and workplace is still to be fully answered.

Will driverless vehicles enhance the productive capacity of cities through cleaner air, greater connectivity and improved mobility – or will they usher in a mechanistic, dystopian future in which human drivers and robot cars cannot co-exist on the roads and commuting patterns are disrupted?

Utopian or dystopian visions?

London Transport Museum has been exploring such scenarios through an exhibition and public programme called Driverless Futures: Utopia or Dystopia, in partnership with the Royal College of Art. In spring 2017, it created a Designology Studio to showcase new ideas for autonomous vehicles in a series of public workshops over a two-month period. The programme culminated in an expert panel, which discussed the future of autonomous vehicles from every angle before an invited audience.

WORKTECH Academy took the opportunity to ask the experts about the impact on the future of work. These were the key points from the debate:

  • Autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce congestion, air and noise pollution by addressing peak-hour overloads in the transport system through computer-programmed mobility planning based on real-time analysis of big data, lessening the effects of rush hour and providing more predictable travel times.
  • Autonomous vehicles will destroy some jobs, but may create new ones. America’s 3.5 million truck drivers have real reason to worry about the future, as driverless trucks (already used on industrial sites such as mines) head towards public roads. But in cities, large taxis or tourist buses might replace the driver with an on-board steward or guide. Use of drones to deliver parcels might replace delivery drivers, but autonomous systems will require extensive human programming and management to run smoothly – which will create new jobs.
  • Autonomous vehicles provide inclusive opportunities to create a more diverse workforce by opening up employment in the future to more older and disabled people, for whom the commute to work by public transport or car is currently a major barrier to holding down a job. Driverless vehicles hold the prospect of people receiving therapy or participating in a yoga class while en route to work.
  • Autonomous vehicles have the potential to tap into the sharing economy by introducing efficiencies and reducing costs in relation to working in the city. In one scenario, ‘white man van’ no longer drives around in a single owned vehicle, clogging up the roads, but travels to jobs via shared autonomous vehicles, calling up the tools and materials required for each assignment from large mobile repositories orbiting the city.
  • Autonomous vehicles might give employees more flexibility by relieving them from having to take time off for such things as school runs or taking elderly relatives to hospital appointments – driverless cars might take on some of these functions.

Three on-road pilots

The debate took place against the backdrop of UK Government pilots for autonomous vehicles in Bristol, Milton Keynes and London, where the £8 million GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment) project is focused on the London Borough of Greenwich.

Experts on the panel included London Transport Museum director Sam Mullins, Iain Macbeth of Transport for London, architect Chris Williamson of Weston Williams, Sue Sharp of sight loss charity RSBC, UK Government policy adviser Rachel Skinner and design researchers Dale Harrow and Rama Gheerawo of the Royal College of Art.

There remain enormous technical, legal and social challenges in implementing automated vehicles in an urban environment. Nevertheless a driverless future is on the horizon and a big question remains: is the workplace ready for the new directions ahead?