If you walked down a city street and asked people what made them happy, it would be a safe bet that the word “commute” wouldn’t appear in any of the responses. This is true not just in the U.S., but in almost any city in the world.
Life for many people today is based on a premise that work is found in cities, and that getting to work is inevitably going to be a frustrating experience laced with boredom and anxiety. Quite simply, the journey from home to work is the bane of many people’s lives. That’s especially true for drivers: on a train or a bus, you can at least read or take a nap (if you get a seat, anyway).
However it’s likely that a mix of developing technologies will mean that your children’s car commute won’t look anything like yours for three reasons.
The first reason is that driverless cars will alter both how you commute and where you commute from.
In terms of how you commute, driving a car today requires absolute concentration on the task at hand. According to the U.S. National Safety Council, even “simple” multi-tasking is incredibly distracting. Research from the organisation shows that talking on a phone—even a hands free option—significantly increases cognitive distraction, which in turn leads to increased accidents. It estimates 21 percent of all crashes in the USA in 2010 involved talking on cell phones.
Handing control of the car over to a computer will allow people the freedom to do whatever they want in the vehicle, to the point that talking on the phone may be the least distracting activity undertaken while commuting.
While some will point to the recent fatal Tesla crash as evidence that driverless car technology is unreliable, the company pointed out that this was the first fatality after 130 million miles of drivers using Tesla’s partially self driving ‘autopilot’ system. The company also highlighted that in the USA there is a fatality every 94 million miles for all vehicles. Any doubts about the uptake of driverless car technology will also have to be tempered by the recent announcement from Uber that it will be using self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh very shortly
Computer controlled cars also have impacts at a much higher level. When a highway is used primarily by driverless cars, the efficiency of the road increases dramatically because cars can travel much closer together. This will be possible because in addition to sensors monitoring the gap between cars, vehicles are also likely to communicate with each other as they travel. This means that if the car at the front of the group starts to slow, other cars react at the same time.
Increased road efficiency means a reduction in commuting time, which, when coupled with the opportunity to work—or sleep—in the car, could create the opportunity for people to change their paradigm about needing to live close to their workplace.
Driverless cars are also likely to mean that you won’t be the only person in the car—you’re likely to cut the cost of your commute by sharing it with someone else. A dispatching algorithm will locate other people with similar pick up and drop off locations, and then route the car accordingly. Already car-pooling comprises 20 percent of the total Uber rides taken today.
The evolution of car sharing is likely to lead to differentiated market offerings. The cheap option would be sharing a vehicle with strangers—much like taking a bus today. If you’re willing to pay more, you could end up in a ‘car’ that contains several totally separate ‘cabins’ that provide complete privacy while still travelling to several drop-off points. The expensive option would be to have a car all to yourself.
The second reason that the commute of the future will be different, is that it might not require physical commuting at all.
Telecommuting is a technology that has been touted since the advent of personal computers. The premise is simple—for some jobs, workers could easily perform their role without actually having to be at the office. However this way of working has defied optimistic predictions, and has not taken off the way technology pundits have forecast.
Nevertheless the uptake of telecommuting is increasing, and in 2012 the US Census Bureau found that the number of people who worked at home at least one day per week increased from 7 percent in 1999 to 9.5 percent in 2010. When you look at the figures in more detail, the percentage of home based workers increased dramatically in some professions. For example, the survey points out that the number of home-based workers in computing, engineering and science increased by almost 70 percent from 2000-2010.
This begs the following question: if the tools that enabled telecommuting were to improve significantly, would more people prefer this way of working rather than enduring a daily commute?
One of the tools that holds extraordinary potential in this area is artificial reality (AR). For ease of understanding, I’m going to use that term to encompass both virtual reality (where you wear a headset to see an entirely computer-generated world) and augmented reality (where you wear glasses that enable you to see the real world and computer-generated imagery at the same time).
Recently I’ve spent a lot of in one of the latest incarnations of virtual reality – the HTC Vive - and the experience is so compelling that taking off the VR headset is an anti-climatic experience that makes the real world feel underwhelming.
For this technology to be useful for telecommuting, it needs to be able to map facial expressions and body language. This is because when people talk to each other in the real world, the non-spoken communication is as important as what passes between the lips. Companies like 8i are already working on developing a “true sense of presence” for VR in which it feels like you are interacting with real people —not just clunky avatars. This has the potential to create social interaction in a virtual world that’s almost as rich as it would be in real life.
However it turns out that currently the biggest barrier to telecommuting isn’t technology, but a lack of trust by management. Developments that address this issue hold the answer to the third reason why commuting in the future will look dramatically different.
In the last few decades, the notion of work meant that people had to be physically present at one location for years, therefore earning trust from colleagues.
Today modern companies and younger employees have very different expectations, and these norms have been eroded to the point where the very nature of an organisation is starting to be questioned. To give more context, one of the key insights from the worlds largest foresight programme (called Future Agenda), was that new types of organisations are appearing, and that companies in the future are likely to look like ‘corporate lego’ as freelancers move fluidly between employers.
In this world, the old measure of trust is replaced by a more meaningful indicator—reputation. Freelance sites like UpWork and Expert360 provide marketplaces where organisations can engage people based on their ability to meet a price, deliver work to a deadline and their reputation as rated by other employers. These measures address the biggest current barrier to telecommuting and replace individual trust with an aggregate reputation.
So what does all this mean for the commute of the future?
Imagine a situation where you get into a car at 8:30 AM to travel to work to attend a meeting where you actually need to be there in person. While in the car you could work on your own tasks and use AR to ‘attend’ other meetings. You’d be unconcerned about the length of time the trip took, or who else was in the car, and potentially it could deliver you directly to the door of your workplace. While you were travelling you could be as productive—or unproductive—as you liked.
Would this still count as commuting, or would the workplace morph into which ever location you selected?
Being available and online all the time has a downside that people are starting to understand more, and I’d like to go into this in more detail but it’s 8 PM and a colleague has just Skyped me…