Beyond the road: some of the wider societal impacts of autonomous vehicles

Much has been written regarding both the potential positive and negative impacts of fully autonomous, or ‘driverless’, vehicles. If we believe the hype, driverless vehicles will eradicate driver errors and help dramatically reduce the road toll. If we believe the naysayers, the road toll may initially increase rather than decline as driverless vehicles fail to interact optimally with other drivers and road users such as cyclists and pedestrians.

Either way, we know that the impacts on the road will be significant. What is missing from the discussion though appears to be consideration of the wider societal impacts that fully autonomous vehicles may bring. Sure, protagonists have waxed lyrical about major economic benefits, but what about any potential negative impacts on society? It is this authors view that there could be many – and they will emerge primarily due to a fundamental shift in the nature of how we get from A to B.

In particular, it seems likely that, since humans will either have much less to do when driving, or will not have to drive at all, they will be able to engage in other behaviours more often. On the face of it this sounds great, however, dig a little deeper and this aspect of driverless vehicles becomes concerning, as many of the behaviours engaged in may in fact be harmful.

As a starting point, it is worth looking at what could happen if people, freed from the requirement to drive, engage more in the behaviours that are currently prohibited when driving. These include drinking and taking drugs, engaging with devices such as mobile phones and laptops, and sleeping.

Increasing societal alcohol consumption and drug use are the most concerning by-product of driverless vehicles. As the long commute home effectively becomes leisure time, drinking levels could rise dramatically. Who wouldn’t enjoy a Gin and Tonic or three when faced with an hour-long commute? In addition, as drivers no longer have to worry about being over the legal drink driving limit on the way to work, they may increase their alcohol intake on an evening. They don’t have to drive in the morning, so why not have that one final drink?

The same concerns apply to drug use. Drug driving is not a concern when you don’t have to drive anymore. In short, the requirement to drive currently moderates drink and drug use in society. Without it, the floodgates could open. In turn, this has a range of knock on impacts, including increasing levels of crime, domestic violence, and an increased burden on our healthcare systems.

Another concern relates to our already disturbing obsession with devices and social media. There can be no doubt that these issues will be heightened. Hands-free time will mean more device time. More device time will invariably lead to more engagement in social media. Whilst driving currently provides many with a break from their devices and from social media, driverless vehicles will provide dedicated device time. The perils of social media are many and varied. Driverless vehicles might just exacerbate them.

And what about overwork? Another concern is that our already extensive working hours may increase, simply because we will have more free time to work. Employers may expect us to be connected and contactable, or even working, during the commute. Even if they don’t, it is likely that many will take the opportunity to put in more working hours (I know I will – those journal articles wont write themselves). Currently the drive prevents us from working and allows us to think, sing along, chat to our passengers, and so on. When our hands and minds are no longer distracted by the driving task, they will be free to do more of the devil’s work.

A final concern relates to our sleeping habits. How many of us currently grab an early night before a long drive the next morning? Equally, how many of us would stay up and watch an extra episode of the latest Netflix series if we knew we didn’t have to drive in the morning. Without the need to be fresh and fully alert when driving, people may purposely get less sleep. The impacts of poor sleeping habits on health and wellbeing are significant and should not be underestimated.

There will likely be other impacts, both positive and negative. It seems though, that driverless cars could create significant negative impacts on societal health and wellbeing. Research is therefore required now to forecast these impacts and identify ways in which they can be prevented or mitigated. The irony that should not be lost in all of this, is that some of the societal issues that currently create road trauma, such as alcohol and drug use and addiction to social media, will likely be made worse by the introduction of driverless vehicles that are designed to prevent road trauma in the first place.

Paul Salmon is a Professor of Human Factors and is the Director of the Centre for Human Factors and Socioetechnical Systems at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

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