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How Will Self-Driving Cars Affect Education?

Like a lot of people, I am fascinated by self-driving vehicles. The rapid advancement of the enabling technology is mind-blowing itself, but I think the implications for other industries is even more interesting. 

I’ve read a lot about how 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. (plus an additional 10 million or so related jobs) are destined to go the way of buggy whip–manufacturing jobs, but it doesn’t just stop there. There will be a huge impact on real estate, for example. Urban parking garages will be demolished and turned to other uses. Gas (or EV-charging) stations will relocate from high-traffic main streets to more-hidden locations (where the real estate is deemed less valuable). Insurance, manufacturing, and retail will see enormous changes. 

But when it comes to the impact on education, the only discussion I have seen concerns the idea that millions of displaced workers will need to be retrained. So I’d like to talk a bit about the impact of self-driving cars on (adult) education — and offer a thought exercise.

But first, some background. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, each year in the United States about 140 million adults spend something like 30 billion hours commuting to and from work. About 25 billion hours are spent commuting by car, and the average commute is 26 minutes — each way! Interestingly, this is roughly the same amount of time Americans spend eating.

Obviously, since this is an average, many people commute much farther, and some less. The expectation is that with self-driving cars, these commute lengths might actually increase, and people will be able to buy cheaper or better property farther from work without paying the heavy price of commuting in the traditional way. 

I’m sure many of you reading this are thinking, “Self-driving cars are fantasy…we won’t see them for decades!” But did you know that Waymo alone will soon have nearly 100,000 self-driving cars in its fleet and has already driven more than 9 million miles on the road? And that’s not to mention the 5 billion miles of driving in simulation. Most experts believe that true self-driving cars will be commonly available in the 2020s, with some predicting as soon as 2022, some three years hence.

So my proposition is this: As self-driving cars enter the market and mainstream, a battle royale will ensue for those 25 billion hours. People will still commute by car, but instead of keeping their eyes on the road while they drive, they will become passengers. The design of car interiors will change so that people can become active passengers. Fierce competition for this time will include:

  • Sleeping
  • Eating
  • Exercise (yes, exercise!)
  • Work
  • Entertainment
  • Socializing
  • Learning

We can assume that much of this time will be spent on entertainment, with big winners like Netflix, Amazon, Apple, EA, Sony, and probably some new entrants. But as adoption grows over the next five to ten years, billions of hours will become available for other purposes, and I think there is a huge opportunity to capture some of this time for online learning.

Imagine a top university (or universities) partnering with Waymo or other leading self-driving car companies, who presumably will provide transportation as a service (along the lines of Uber). Employers could then allocate portions of their L&D budget to employees (or recruits) who complete certain skills and competencies. Do that while riding in a self-driving car, and your ride could be subsidized — or even free. 

Imagine a carpooling service where passengers are picked up based on the material they are studying (a sort of dynamic study group!).

I think the options afforded by the adoption of self-driving cars are endless. Innovative institutions will be thinking about this — and how they can make the most of the opportunity.

If you’re in the adult learning sector, what’s your strategy for the coming self-driving car revolution?

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