Worker Productivity While Inside AI Driverless Cars, It’s Murky

Dr. Lance B. Eliot, AI Insider

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Will workers be more productive or less productive by use of AI self-driving cars

What We Do in Our Cars

When you are driving a car, there is only so much else that you can accomplish other than actually driving the car.

When you are a passenger, you can try to accomplish tasks and have a better chance since you presumably are not required to pay attention to the driving (assuming you trust the driver!). It can be hard though as a passenger to get a lot done since the rocking movement of the car tends to make it difficult to write or read, and you might also suffer from motion sickness while trying to do so. Taking a nap is maybe one handy way to use the time as a passenger.

Some economists suggest that the time we spend in our cars today is relatively vacant of productivity. The normal passenger car driver is considered negligibly productive since they are focused on the driving task (a role that is perhaps only “productive” in terms of providing transit from point A to point B, but otherwise adds no further value, presumably). Passengers might have some amount of productivity, but it is considered rather low due to the nature of the “work” environment as available in a typical passenger car. All in all, the time we spend in our cars is often considered wasted or under-utilized with respect to being productive.

Overall, we need to try and grapple with the notion of productivity. What is considered as being productive and thus constituting productivity?

Trying to Figure Out Productivity

If you are measuring productivity of a person working on an assembly line in a manufacturing plant, you could in a straightforward manner count how many widgets they are making per hour. Then, if you can make changes to increase how many widgets that person is producing per hour, you’ve presumably increased the productivity of that person. It’s the classic definition of productivity being the equation of output divided by input (for labor productivity, it is customary to use output volume produced as divided by labor input used).

Labor productivity in today’s world is not so easily counted. We have been shifting to a knowledge-based form of workforce. You cannot quite so easily come up with simpleton measures for productivity.

Are people today being productive in their cars? The answer to the question can differ dramatically depending on how you define productivity.

Applies to AI Self-Driving Cars

You might be wondering what does this have to do with AI self-driving cars?

At the Cybernetic AI Self-Driving Car Institute, we are developing AI software for self-driving cars. One aspect that many are hoping to have happen will be that people will become “more productive” in their cars due to the advent of AI self-driving cars. We think it is a topic worthwhile giving some pointed thought towards.

Returning to the topic of productivity while inside a moving car, let’s consider how things might change once we have truly autonomous cars at the Level 5. I do so to allow us to put aside the role of a human driver.

In the case of a true Level 5 self-driving car, the passengers should have no need whatsoever to be involved in or considering the driving of the car. As such, other than perhaps providing commands or conversing with the AI about various elements of the driving.

Some have suggested that if we have truly autonomous self-driving cars, some portion of people will be preoccupied with being worried about the driving and it will detract from any kind of “added” productivity that they might gain while inside such a self-driving car. I agree wholeheartedly that if the self-driving car at that juncture is not trustworthy to drive the car, it absolutely makes sense that people would be focused on the driving aspects.

People in The Future

Assume that there will indeed be a period of time for which people will rightfully be cautious and concerned when getting into a truly autonomous AI self-driving car. During that period of time, any productivity will be hampered by the aspect that the people in the car are having to double-check and watch over the AI.

Next, let’s assume we get past that period of time and exit successfully from the jitters of trusting the AI to drive the car. Assume that we reach a point whereby you trust the AI as much as you would a seasoned human chauffeur that is expert at driving cars.

I want to then focus on the time period that involves no particular concern by passengers about the driving of the AI self-driving car. Meanwhile, if you want to argue with me about whether there will ever be such a day, and that maybe we won’t ever get to truly autonomous AI self-driving cars, I’ll offer the thought that yes, I agree it is possible we won’t get there, but anyway for purposes of continuing this discussion, let’s pretend or imagine that it will happen.

Right now, any time a conventional car is being driven, it implies that there is a human driver in the car (they are doing the driving), and the human is generally occupied with driving the car. If we eliminate the need for a human driver, this means that anyone inside a car becomes a passenger and no longer a driver.

What might the former human driver that now is a passenger do while inside the AI self-driving car and while the AI self-driving car is on a driving journey?

Notice that I am purposely trying to make a distinction between those people that were already passengers in a conventional car and versus those people in an AI self-driving car that are now passengers and were once drivers. The former drivers are now able to do whatever a passenger can do, meaning no need to deal with the driving of the car. .

What I am trying to convey is that in the aggregate, we are going to be taking all of those former drivers that spent time driving, and they will in the truly autonomous self-driving car become passengers. This means that all of that time formerly used for driving is no longer being used to drive.

Suppose then that all of those former drivers were to do almost anything “productive” while inside the AI self-driving car. Even if they did something productive for only say one minute, it would mean that if we said before they had zero productivity as a driver, we have now leaped tremendously into their being productive because they now have anything other than zero as their productivity.

In a sense, we have mushroomed the productivity immensely, solely by eliminating the human driving task and now having the former human driver be able to provide attention to anything that might be considered productive.

Tricks of Productivity Counting

This is important to note because it shows the trickiness about wanting to predict whether we will be more productive while inside self-driving cars versus conventional cars. You can say it is a slam dunk that we will be, merely by shifting off the driving task and then putting any amount of time toward something considered productive.

Per various stats by the Department of Transportation, there are an estimated 222+ million licensed drivers in the United States and it is claimed that we each spend about 17,600 minutes per year on-the-average driving (we’ll say that’s about 300 hours per year). This suggests that there are 222 million x 300 hours = 66,600 million hours per year in the United States for purposes of driving.

If you assume that driving is a zero-productivity task, this implies that in the United States alone we are “wasting” about 66,600 million hours per year of potential productivity.

If those same drivers opt to become passengers in the same manner as they are being drivers today (number of trips, length of trips, etc.), it suggests that we have a chance of turning the 66,600 million hours into some amount of productive time.

Suppose we are only able to turn 1% of that time into something productive, this means that we still have something on the order of 666 million hours of added productivity per year.

Outstanding! AI self-driving cars that are truly autonomous have a back-of-the-envelope calculation that shows we could boost American productivity by adding over 650 million hours of productive efforts at just a 1% use of their time toward something productive while inside the self-driving car.

If you take a leap of logic and say that those hours are worth at least the value of the national minimum wage (in terms of what people could earn per hour) and use a federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, you then have $4,712 millions worth of labor that could be added to the amount of national labor per year. I don’t want to go off the deep-end on this and so let’s just leave it there for the moment (I’m sure my economist colleagues are cringing!).

Here’s then what we seem to have:

  • Former human driving and the hours of those human drivers, which as a driver was considered at a zero productivity, can become a huge boom to productivity by converting those drivers into passengers (or, the driving time into passenger time), and those now passengers can do nearly anything productive, even the littlest bit, and yet still cause leaps in aggregate productivity beyond the former zero.
  • Former passengers in conventional cars, which already had some amount of productivity since they weren’t doing the driving task, presumably can have at least that same productivity in the AI self-driving cars, and perhaps even more productivity due to no longer being a second pair of eyes for the driver.

Let’s further pursue this matter of the amount of potential productivity involved.

Most pundits predict that AI self-driving cars will be running non-stop and be available whenever you might need a ride. Thus, whatever we might already consider the added productivity can be boosted even potentially higher because we might have a lot more “passenger” time in the future than we do today.

There is another angle on the productivity question. Will we be able to be more productive in our time outside of being inside a car, due to the advent of AI self-driving cars?

Notice that I’ve only focused on the productivity time while inside an AI self-driving car, but there are some that believe by having AI self-driving cars it will change other aspects of our lives and make us more productive beyond just the act of being inside a car. If you go along with that notion, please add more to the mounting amount of added productivity due to AI self-driving cars.

There are other sides to this coin, which I’ll be addressing in a moment.

For example, you need to be considering that some say we might actually spend less time in the aggregate in our cars once we have AI self-driving cars. If right now you drive your son to baseball practice, you are using your driving time to do so. Thus, we would need to figure out what reduction this has in terms of the conversion of former human drivers that are not going to become passengers per se in circumstances whereby they before needed to drive for some other purpose that didn’t actually need them to be present.

Time is Not a Monolith

In terms of productivity, the discussion herein has suggested that you could have 300 hours per year of potentially productive time handed over to you as a former driver of conventional cars. That seems like a lot of time and could be presumably used for all sorts of nifty things, including perhaps learning a new skill to enhance your existing set of talents. Imagine taking an on-line course that streams into your AI self-driving car.

Unfortunately, trying to portray the time as one monolithic chunk of 300 hours is quite misleading. The reality is that it will be maybe 1 hour per day, roughly (I realize that would be 365 hours in a year but give me a break and let’s just say 1 hour per day as an easy approximation).

Worse still, it really isn’t fair to say it is 1 hour per day since the odds are that as a conventional driver you were making around 3 trips per day, and if that continues in the future, it means that each driving journey is only about 20 minutes in length.

The upshot is that the 300 hours is realistically a series of somewhat disconnected 20-minute segments.

I say disconnected because if you drive to work in the morning you’ve done one of the three 20 minute segments, then you work for say 8 hours, you then drive home and get another 20 minute segment, and maybe after getting home for a while then go out to do an errand and get the other 20 minute segment into your 1 hour per day of driving time. These 20-minute segments are not back-to-back.

We can even debate whether the full 20-minutes is realistic since there might be time to get settled into the self-driving car and time needed to engage whatever internal system you might use for taking an online class or doing any kind of Skype-like meetings. It could be that the usable time of the 20-minute segments is more akin to 10–15 minutes of actually dedicated and uninterrupted attention.

Another perspective would be to suggest that instead of taking training, you would be performing work tasks of some kind. The work tasks would need to be framed into those 20-minute or less time segments that you are traveling in your car.

I think we should ponder though what people could do for those short segments while in their self-driving cars, and hopefully be something that adds to their productivity. It might be a challenge to do so.

It could be some task that is repeated for each of those 20-minute segments in that they do the same kind of tasks for any of the times they are in the self-driving car, or it could be they do something differently depending on the nature of the timing of the 20-minute segments. For example, in my case, I do work phone calls during my morning commute and afternoon commute.

Redesign of Car Interiors

One aspect that seems to be a relatively sure bet is that you might be more likely to do group meetings while inside the self-driving car. The design for future concept cars suggests that the seats in a true Level 5 self-driving car might be swiveled and allow for face-to-face conversations with the occupants.

We might also reasonably anticipate that network speeds will be much higher in the age of Level 5 self-driving cars, including the adoption of 5G and then later on 6G. This means that inside of the self-driving car you are likely to be able to carry on group meetings with others that might be scattered all across the globe.

Will the potential redesign of future cars make it easier to do reading and writing while in a moving car? The jury is out still on this question. If you are trying to do conventional reading and writing while in a self-driving car, using pen and paper, I suppose the AI self-driving car is not going to make much of a difference in terms of allowing you to do a better job at reading and writing than a conventional car of today. Motion sickness also is likely to become a larger societal issue, rising in frequency as people try to read or study while inside of AI self-driving cars.

Another consideration about trying to do something productive while inside a self-driving car brings up an issue that some of the auto makers are already anticipating, namely the dangers of loose objects that could fly throughout the self-driving car and strike someone, which could happen if the AI has to hit the brakes suddenly or make a quick maneuver.

The auto makers are struggling with how to protect passengers in general when inside these futuristic redesigned cars. Where will the air bags be? What kind of seat belts will be best? Should loose objects be hooked into some kind of bungee cords to prevent the objects from getting too far from you?

From a productivity viewpoint, I suppose you might argue that sleeping inside an AI self-driving car is putting us back toward a zero in terms of added productivity. But, look at that point in a different way. If I am able to get some sleep while in my AI self-driving car, maybe it makes me more productive when I get to work. Thus, if you are only counting productivity while inside the self-driving car, it might be unfair because I’ve done something seemingly unproductive inside the self-driving car that made me more productive outside of the self-driving car.

In spite of the seemingly apparent logic that we will gain productivity by the advent of AI self-driving cars, there are some that suggest we might actually have productivity loses due to AI self-driving cars.

Let’s consider some of the points about the possibility of productivity leakage or losses.

If the interior of an AI self-driving car is ripe with touchscreens and other electronics, perhaps we will use any available time inside the self-driving car for purely entertainment purposes. Maybe we’ll all be watching cat videos and make no effort to better ourselves with the added time that we will have to do something while being ferried by an AI self-driving car.

Perhaps the swivel seats will allow us to have greater comradery with our fellow persons but distract us from doing work.

When you were a driver of a car, you might have been in a more serious mood due to the somber nature of the driving task. In contrast, while in a true AI self-driving car, you could have lost the edge to work and opt to just have fun or be a mental vegetable.

I’d guess that in spite of these potential productivity drains, and though it might lessen some of the productivity gains, it seems hard to imagine that a net effect would be an overall productivity loss.

Societal Work-Related Changes

When I’ve been mentioning productivity, it has been in the context of work-related productivity.

This will likely mean that if we all start doing work in our cars, and rather than it being something that is happenstance, suppose instead employers come to expect that you will do work while commuting in your car. If that’s the case, it opens up other aspects such as whether you are officially on-the-clock during that time and whether you should be paid for it.

I’m not suggesting that working in your self-driving car will be a new idea and surprise anyone. Instead, I am merely pointing out that if today in conventional cars we have just a small portion of workers that get work done, imagine the volume and magnitude of work being done while in AI self-driving cars.

Some believe that we might end-up living much further from work as a result of the convenience of AI self-driving cars. Right now, you likely dread having to drive an hour and deal with the high pressures of snarled traffic. Imagine that you were in an AI self-driving car, oblivious to the traffic. And, you were able to work while in your AI self-driving car. You might decide to live 2 hours or 3 hours away from work, knowing that you can sleep in your AI self-driving car on the way to work, and/or get your work started from your “mobile” office and thus not worry about getting to the office promptly.

The statistic about drivers in the United States spending 300 hours per year driving is potentially misleading about what will happen in the future. Instead of begrudgingly making that 20-minute commute each-way today, you might welcome with open arms a 60-minute or more commute each-way, allowing you more options of where to live. The impact being that whereas before we were grappling with how to deal with productivity when cut into tiny 20-minute or so segments, it could be that the future will have much longer segments as people actively choose to go longer distances.

We also should consider other kinds of “productivity” besides work specific productivity. Maybe you will be a more productive citizen by using the time in your self-driving car to study up on issues of the day and be better prepared to vote in elections. Maybe you will be able to do more community work, volunteering to aid a non-profit while you are there in your self-driving car and have time to spare. These could have measurable impacts on society as a whole, regardless whether they relate to specifically performing a job that you might have.


With true autonomous AI self-driving cars, it could be the best of times or it could be the worst of times. Maybe we turn toward using our available time in self-driving cars to become a sweatshop and everyone must get onto the treadmill of work the moment they get into their self-driving car. That’s a rather doomsday kind of view. Maybe we are able to use the time in the AI self-driving cars to make some additional money, maybe add more to society by volunteering, and possibly even get to know each other a bit better. I like that scenario a lot more.

When I was driving our car with the kids in it, I relished being with them to take them to school, but I also was trying to watch the road and make sure they got there safely. If I could have been with them and focused on just them, it would have been nice. I dreamed of the day when an AI self-driving car would allow me to do so.

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Copyright 2018 Dr. Lance Eliot

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