Check out these future commuters multitasking aboard a self-driving Mercedes-Benz F 015 concept car. Mercedes-Benz

Probably not working, new research surmises.

The latest news from the self-driving revolution: Uber’s new driverless fleet in Pittsburgh welcomed its first (non-paying) passengers, Boston announced a plan to test-drive autonomous vehicles on city streets, and Tesla rolled out safety-related software improvements to its Autopilot system. As the sci-fi prospect of a truly driverless future continues to creep inexorably closer, it’s time to ask: What are we supposed to do with ourselves in the car when the robot is at the wheel?

This is a question that Michael Sivak, who heads the University of Michigan’s Sustainable Worldwide Transportation research consortium, has been pondering, and in a new report co-authored with his colleague Brandon Schoettle, we get the beginnings of an answer. The average American now spends a total of about an hour a day in their vehicle, time that might theoretically be liberated and put to more productive use once we’re all ferried about by robo-cars. But the report concludes that 62 percent of current U.S. drivers would be unlikely to see any increased productivity, either because they’re unwilling to ride in self-driving cars—or they’d spend all the time watching the road anyway.

The dream of Getting Shit Done On the Go has persisted for decades. (Check out the magnificent “Mobile Director” option package for Chrysler’s late-1960s Imperial, with a swiveling seat and a desk, so that businessmen could bark dictation to a secretary.) In 2015, Mercedes-Benz unveiled an updated take on the rolling office, a fully-autonomous concept with rotating lounge chairs and the vibe of a walnut-trimmed airport lounge. It’s one of several attempts to reimagine what sitting in the car will look like once we no longer have to keep our hands on the wheel. Self-driving advocates often tout the transformative time-management potential of the technology. All that dead commuting time brought back to life! Will we work? Watch TV? Sleep? Have sex? No one knows!

Tesla owners who switch on Autopilot mode are already getting a (sometimes perilous) taste of this brave new world as they zone-out on their partially automated Interstate runs. But the Michigan researchers took a deeper look at how current drivers behave, as well as their fears and expectations about what self-driving might be like, and found several serious barriers to reaping the promised productivity boom.

First, people will need to be convinced that it’s safe to get in autonomous cars: Almost a quarter of U.S. respondents to a 2014 survey flatly refused to consider riding in one, and more recent follow-up surveys have indicated that those percentages aren’t budging. (Elsewhere in the world, people seemed more game—only 3.1 percent of Chinese respondents expressed reservations, for example.) And even of those Americans who agreed to take a self-driving ride, 35.5 percent claimed that they’d spend the whole time staring out the windshield. “This is so new and so unproven, they think, ‘I better watch the road,’” Sivak says.

A little more than 10 percent of the rest of the U.S. respondents said they’d read in the car; about the same share would text or talk to their friends, and 6 percent admitted they’d watch TV. Less than 5 percent thought they’d even attempt to get any work done. One possible reason why: 6 to 12 percent said they experience some level of motion sickness. Another hurdle is time. It may seem like we all spend half the day sitting in traffic—and some of us do—but individual car trips are less than 20 minutes each on average, barely long enough to squeeze in a power-nap or an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

Sivak also stresses many potential safety issues. That groovy lounge-like mobile office could be a deathtrap in a panic stop, the report authors warn:

Many designers envision occupants in self-driving vehicles being in a range of nontraditional positions and postures. For example, some of the arrangements being considered resemble living rooms, with occupants in a variety of seating positions and orientations, or even sleeping in a supine posture. Not only would many of these nontraditional positions and postures vary considerably from the optimum for which the restraint systems were designed, but some of them also have the potential to be near-worst-case positions or postures, with g-forces imparted upon occupants during crashes and abrupt stops in ways that are likely to result in more serious injuries than conventional forward-facing seating.

If we intend to hammer away on laptops at 75 MPH, Sivak adds, we’re going to have to find a way to restrain our electronics. “These things will become projectiles,” he says. The report explains further:

Unrestrained objects flying forward from the rear seats during an abrupt stop or crash that would strike the seat backs in a traditional vehicle would instead be propelled toward the rear-facing front-seat occupants. Furthermore, rear-facing front-seat occupants would be at risk from their own objects and devices (such as laptops or tablets) that would also be propelled forward toward them during a crash.

The report doesn’t explore possible solutions, but none of these problems are insurmountable, given enough time and engineering prowess. It’s not hard to imagine, for example, how future cars designed to be autonomous from the ground up could possess any number of safety advantages over current vehicles—for example, they could theoretically forgo windows, and could be constructed as impregnable shockproof shells laden with stem-to-stern airbags. (Also, they wouldn’t be driven by idiots or drunks.)

But perhaps the biggest barrier to turning car-time into leisure- or productivity-time is the burden of history and human nature. Once social expectations of what you’re supposed to be doing in an automobile begin to shift, other tasks will colonize those newly idle moments. And, like email and washing machines, driverless vehicles may end up joining the long list of technological innovations that promised liberation and instead delivered a different way to keep busy.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. Life

    What Happened When Tulsa Paid People to Work Remotely

    The first class of hand-picked remote workers moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in exchange for $10,000 and a built-in community. The city might just be luring them to stay.

  2. photo: a man with a smartphone in front of a rental apartment building in Boston.
    Equity

    Landlords Are Using Next-Generation Eviction Tech

    As tenant protections get stronger, corporate landlords use software to manage delinquent renters. But housing advocates see a tool for quicker evictions.

  3. animated illustration: cars, bikes, scooters and drones in motion.
    Transportation

    This City Was Sick of Tech Disruptors. So It Decided to Become One.

    To rein in traffic-snarling new mobility modes, L.A. needed digital savvy. Then came a privacy uproar, a murky cast of consultants, and a legal crusade by Uber.

  4. Photo: A protected bike lane along San Francisco's Market Street, which went car-free in January.
    Transportation

    Why Would a Bike Shop Fight a Bike Lane?

    A store owner is objecting to San Francisco’s plan to install a protected bike lane, because of parking worries. Should it matter that it’s a bike shop?

  5. Maps

    For Those Living in Public Housing, It’s a Long Way to Work

    A new Urban Institute study measures the spatial mismatch between where job seekers live and employment opportunities.

×