Are self-driving cars the offices of the future?

University researchers will explore how commuters could work while traveling in an autonomous vehicle.
13 November 2018

Your new work space? Source: Shutterstock

While an answer to the question of when self-driving cars will become a normal sight as you leave the house is cause for debate, daily advances being made in the automotive industry suggest the technology’s wide adoption is somewhat of an inevitability.

Autonomous vehicles remain a long way down the road in terms of safety— just last week, human intervention during a test by Waymo resulted in a non-fatal collision with a motorcycle— but, from an environmental, congestion, cost and maintenance perspective, the benefits stand to be multitudinous.

In the world of business, the impact will also be a cultural one. Commuters will be able to spend the 26.6 minutes per day spent commuting on more productive activities, turning that time into office hours used to plan the day ahead, catch up on emails, arrange meetings— or to watch cat videos, if that’s your thing.

In fact, the benefits posed by such a concept are such that researchers from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) have received a US$2 million from the National Science Foundation to explore how time saved by not driving— or by not standing on a packed-out subway, for that matter— can be reimagined in the age of automation.

“Millions of people spend nearly an hour of each working day driving to and from work,” said UNH researcher Andrew Kun, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “With automated vehicles, part of this time could be used toward work-related efforts.”

According to Kun, the aim of the research is to understand how realistic current and future technologies can enable us to work in automated vehicles and, as a result, the impact this could have on workers’ productivity and well-being, as well as the productivity and profitability of firms overall.

Of course, with flaws still present in the technology (the death of an Arizona woman caused by an autonomous Uber vehicle, a high-profile example), the nature of the research will be to establish what kind of activities related to work could be safely carried out in transit.

To do that, researchers will develop and test a new “multi-interface in-vehicle environment” in driving simulators and real vehicles. The project will integrate three types of user interfaces— voice, augmented reality and tangible— and will serve as the basis of design guidelines for researchers, practitioners and policymakers.

“Automated vehicles hold out the promise of significantly improving the safety of driving. They also open up possibilities for using our time in vehicles to rest, to play and to work, because we will not constantly need to focus on the road — the car will do this for us,” Kun said.

“The question we are asking is this: How do we design the inside of the car to allow us to take advantage of this new-found freedom from driving?”

The grant is part of the National Science Foundation’s Future of Work at the Human-Technology Frontier initiative, one of the organization’s 10 New Big Ideas for Future Investment, a program that seeks to address the challenges and opportunities of the changing landscape of jobs and work by supporting research.