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What you need to know: This weblog captures key data points about the global telecoms industry. I use it as an electronic notebook to support my work for Pringle Media.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Are We Driving Towards a Productivity Boon or a Dangerous Distraction?

This post is sponsored by the Enterprise Mobile Hub and BlackBerry

This week, I heard a senior executive from a major automaker say he isn’t sure that autonomous cars will become commonplace in his lifetime. The executive is in his mid-forties, so either that is a pretty gloomy verdict on his health prospects or the future of self-driving vehicles.

By contrast, Nissan recently promised to “bring multiple affordable, energy efficient, fully autonomous-driving vehicles to the market by 2020," according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Who to believe?

Self-driving cars still have to clear some major technological, societal and regulatory hurdles, according to a leading (and objective) robotics expert. This expert said this week he expects them to become commonplace in the 2020s.

New meaning for enterprise mobility
All-seeing self-driving tech (image from Nissan press office)
In any case, cars' growing autonomy needs to be factored into an enterprise’s mobility policy today. Self-driving cars don’t have to be fully autonomous to have a major impact on people’s lives and, potentially, the productivity of employees working in the field.  In-car automation appeals to digital natives, in particular, as they are accustomed to posting status updates whenever they feel like it.
And many sales reps would welcome the opportunity to work on a presentation on their way to meeting the client, rather than the night before. 

Already, cars are at a stage where there need very little human oversight in specific segments of a journey. High-end vehicles can be equipped with sensors that slow the car down if it gets too close to the vehicle in front, meaning cruise control requires less human oversight. Sensors can also be used to determine when it is safe to change lanes. In time, vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology could also make it easier for cars to avoid hitting each other. Cars can now be programmed to follow other vehicles. Tesla has said that its cars could be in compete control for 90% of miles driven within three years, according to a Financial Times article.

But will all this technology enable a mobile productivity boom or will it encourage drivers to take too many risks? When will an employee be able to take his or her eyes off the road to do some work? That’s going to be a really tough call.

The answer will depend heavily on how sophisticated the self-driving technology is and how fast the driver can get back in control, the traffic conditions, the road conditions and the kind of work the driver is trying to do.

Growing automation equals rising temptation
As vehicles are equipped with ever more driving aids and ICT, inevitably people will take more chances.  Advances in voice recognition technology will increase the temptation to dictate emails as your car flies along a motorway. As more cars ship with LTE connectivity, drivers will be able to create a high-speed Wi-Fi hotspot and replicate the office environment in the car. 

In the enterprise domain, the onus will be on CIOs to define safe in-car behaviour – as the legal framework is unlikely to keep up with advances in technology. For example, as cars become more autonomous, it should be okay to participate in a conference call while your car chugs along at 20mph through heavy urban traffic. But watching a video will be incredibly risky – at least for the next decade. Similarly, a driver negotiating a winding country lane probably shouldn’t be talking to their boss about a pay increase.
A dummy takes his life in his hands. (Image from Nissan press office)

Trials and test-beds
Completely autonomous cars are likely to be deployed first in clearly-defined areas, such as industrial estates, ports or university campuses where the road network can be blanketed with 4G or another wireless technology providing dedicated bandwidth for autonomous vehicles.

These test-beds should help enterprises understand the potential impact of self-driving cars on productivity and how to keep their people safe.  They will also highlight the need for an entirely new etiquette. For example, how does a self-driving car signal interact with other drivers?  Today, we tend to rely on eye contact with another driver to establish who should go first. How will we know if a self-driving car has “seen” us?

We have a lot of learning to do. 

This post is sponsored by the Enterprise Mobile Hub and BlackBerry

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