Tourism, healthcare, logistics and more—but there's a catch.

By David Z. Morris
June 3, 2017

A new study from Intel and the research firm Strategy Analytics claims that driverless vehicles will be behind $7 trillion worth of economic activity and new efficiencies annually by 2050. That activity, according to the report, will include nearly $4 trillion from driverless ride-hailing and nearly $3 trillion from driverless delivery and business logistics.

The big number also includes $203 billion from “new use cases for pilotless vehicles” in sectors like tourism and healthcare. These previously unimagined applications could include, to cite just two examples, mobile hair salons or rolling restaurants.

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The study further estimates that more than half a million lives would be saved between 2035 and 2045 because of autonomous vehicles’ potential for greater safety, and public safety expenditures would be reduced by more than $234 billion over the same period.

Though it’s not emphasized, the report acknowledges that the efficiencies of this “passenger economy” will entail rough transitions in some sectors. Professional drivers, destination retail stores, and perhaps auto manufacturers who fail to transition will feel them as lost jobs and revenue.

It’s also worth pointing out a deep contradiction of transportation innovation that may complicate the report’s conclusions. Rather than simply reducing the time and effort we spend moving around, every new form of transportation from tamed horses onward has reshaped society in such a way that people wound up spending more time and effort traveling – one aspect of an economic phenomenon known as the Jevons paradox. The most recent manifestation of this is the “induced demand” that often instantly clogs newly-built highways.

While the new report claims driverless cars will eventually save 250 million hours of commuting time per year, others have argued they could instead become the mother of all induced demand events. Though the current global trend is towards urbanization, driverless cars could actually encourage some people to live even farther away from workplaces, or to take even more daily trips, because they can spend the time in their car working, entertaining themselves, or getting a robotic pedicure.

Autonomous vehicles, then, could end up creating a world where we spend more time than ever on the road. While that may qualify as efficiency of a certain kind, it might not be quite the future we’re dreaming of.

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