Austinomics

What Good is a Self-Driving Car Anyway?

Self-driving cars are staged to become the next big advancement in technology that we interact with in our daily lives. The promise of a computer that is your personal chauffeur will certainly cause major auto manufactures to shake up how they compete for business. Indeed, if companies like Uber have their ways, nobody will own a car and instead only hail a ride from a ride sharing service when needing to get from point A to point B. It does make some sense when you think about how often our cars sit idle; certainly the entire population could be served by far fewer cars so long as riders are willing to pick up a few others along the way to their final destination.

With all this extra time we’ll have in our future, relieved from the daily commute, which averages approximately 15 miles one-way for each American, you would think that we have a fantastic opportunity to become more productive in the future. Think about the possibility of having extra time in the morning to read the paper, read a book, or even get an advanced degree. Quiet time to meditate, pray, and reflect on the previous and upcoming day. Hell, you’d even have some time to work before work or work after work. All of this productivity will push more products and services out at a higher rate and at a lower cost, ultimately leading to a higher standard of living.

But unfortunately, none of this will actually happen. Instead of taking advantage of a productivity enhancement (self-driving cars) and stacking it with a productive exercise (reading a book, for example), it is likely that most people that take advantage of self-driving cars will end up taking  a productive tool and stacking an unproductive activity on top of it. An unproductive activity might include something like staring at your phone, looking a social media, or watching your favorite streaming service. Activities on the surface such as Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram may seem harmless, but the brain actually views these activities as work. You are constantly analyzing the screen, determining whether you like something or not, judging a post, writing a comment, et cetera. Comparatively to staring out a window, all of these social media “micro-actives” actually block your secondary neural network from solving real problems in the background and delay yourself from completing tasks such as texting that person back, writing that letter, or getting that load of laundry done on time.

You can extrapolate the same argument out to smart phones in general. What good is having a literal computer in your pocket if it is solely an entertainment device as it has become for most people? The constant push notifications, badges, and beeps is your phones way of saying, “look at me”. Experts have cited this ends up causing behavior likened to having a “casino in your pocket”.

Perhaps the largest benefit will be a reduction in accidents. Certainly you can’t be productive if you’re dead from an automobile accident. Then, there may be savings in healthcare and insurance premiums. And speaking of – many of those working in insurance will likely become structurally unemployed. Maybe, the benefit of self-driving cars will be most greatly realized through not the self-driving cars themselves but instead, what humanity collectively learns through the process of creating the self-driving car. The self-driving car may indeed be just a stepping stone to something much greater in the future.

I’m writing all of this not to say I’m not looking forward to “driving” a self-driving car, but I’ve been seriously pondering the role of some technology in our lives and whether or not it really provides for a better standard of living, whether or not having a smart phone actually makes you smarter or instead slowly drowns your brain into being more interested in consumption than production. I’ve been seriously examining this, and believe I’m ready for my “digital detox” of a life (at least for some time) void of a web browser on a smart phone, void of Snap Chat, and void of Facebook. I know I’m ready because I remember a time, not long ago, when I actually did this experiment. It was before I had a smart phone and I deactivated my Facebook. At that time I was amazed by how much I could actually accomplish in an hour, I was surprised by how my ability to concentrate for very long periods of time without needing a “break”, and overall, I felt mentally healthier. This time, I’m thinking about all these things again, but maybe on a slightly larger scale.

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