Nobody knows for sure when the driverless car revolution will hit, but most are certain it will. Estimates of when the application of self-driving vehicles will occur range from a few years to several decades.1 However, many companies are scheduled to launch driverless vehicles in the 2019 to 2021 timeframe.2 The U.S. Secretary of Transportation stated at the 2015 Frankfurt Auto show that he expects driverless cars to be in use across the world within the next 10 years.3 This article describes what to do now to plan for the wide-sweeping impact of this and other technological changes in the workplace.

I. HOW CLOSE ARE WE TO HAVING AUTONOMOUS SELF-DRIVING VEHICLES ON THE ROADS?

In the first real-world commercial use of autonomous trucking, 45,000 cans of Budweiser beer arrive to a warehouse after traveling over 120 highway miles in a self-driving truck with no driver at the wheel.4 This was done in an Otto, the self-driving truck subsidiary of Uber. The truck went from Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs, Colorado at an average speed of 55 miles per hour.

According to news reports, General Motors Co. plans to deploy thousands of self-driving electric cars in test fleets in partnership with ride-sharing affiliate Lyft Inc, beginning in 2018,5 and Ford is betting $1 billion on the world’s self-driving car future through a majority investment in a start-up called Argo AI.6 This money will be deployed over a period of five years. This is expected to be the largest test of fully autonomous vehicles by any major automaker before 2020, when several companies have said they plan to begin building and deploying such vehicles in higher volumes.

The race is on and lawsuits abound to prove it. For example, Waymo LLC sued Uber Technologies, Inc. in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California alleging trade secret misappropriation, patent infringement and unfair competition related to Waymo’s self-driving car technology.7 A key developer, Anthony Levandowski, is claimed to have left Waymo because its progress was too slow.8 Additionally, Tesla filed a lawsuit against Sterling Anderson, the former director of its Autopilot program, for leaving to join a start-up called Aurora.9

II. WHAT DO DRIVERLESS CARS MEAN FOR YOUR WORKPLACE?

When the revolution hits, the impact on the economy will be far-reaching. Obviously, there would be displacement of many cab/Uber/Lyft drivers, truck drivers, and local delivery services. Truck drivers alone account for 1.6 million drivers and .3% of the US GDP.10 With the increased utilization of driverless car-taxis constantly on the move, there would be less need for parking spaces, freeing space for housing and office space. Some predict there will be no more driver liability insurance with the advent of driverless cars. Volvo, for example, already declared it would assume full liability if one of its driverless cars gets into an accident.11

Other changes to the economy are less obvious, but also impactful. For example, McKinsey predicts that a society of self-driving cars could see a reduction in crash rates of up to 90 percent.12 This means less money spent by individuals on car repairs, maintenance and health bills related to auto accidents. Individuals would also save on gas, maintenance and parking. And what about traffic? A study by INRIX found that the average American and European driver wastes about 111 hours in gridlock every year. With driverless cards, employees could work while on their way to work, and due to decreased traffic, have more time to work in the first place.

In addition to direct impacts on certain jobs and certain industries where self-driving cars will eliminate positions and reduce headcount, the launch of driverless vehicles will also impact core areas of workplace law. For example, for countless positions where driving has long been considered an essential function of the job, the advent of driverless cars raises the question of whether it is reasonable to deny those positions to individuals who cannot drive due to disabilities. The fact that driving could be automated would make the question one of cost of providing a self-driving vehicle as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Similarly, for those individuals who have been denied driving positions due to religious concerns regarding photographs and fingerprint checks, those individuals could now claim that the employer could accommodate the religious concern by allowing them to ride in a driverless vehicle. Whether providing such an accommodation would be an undue burden could be an issue of fact in litigation, particularly where the company provides vehicles to other employees.

III. DRONES AND MORE

We can also expect sweeping changes both in the delivery of commercial services and in elevated privacy concerns through the increased use of drones at the workplace. Amazon recently secured a patent for its Amazon Prime Air®, which plans to release packages from drones by parachute, magnet, or spring coils mid-air and guide them safely to the ground for delivery. 13 Currently, autonomous drone delivery out of the human line of sight is not permitted by FAA regulations in the United States. Amazon, however, has made drone deliveries in Britain, and Domino’s has delivered pizzas in New Zealand via a drone. Amazon pledges deliveries by drones in less than 30 minutes and advertises that the tests in Britain took 13 minutes from the customer completing the order to the package being delivered.14 Other companies have made drone deliveries in the United States in flights supervised by humans (making this delivery method legal). Google delivered Chipotle to students at Virginia Tech,15 and the drone delivery firm Flirtey16 successfully completed the first fully autonomous, FAA-approved urban drone delivery in Hawthorne, Nevada, where the company delivered a package that included bottled water, emergency food, and a first aid kit by drone.17

Again, the delivery of packages by automated drones will effect a wholesale change in the nature and types of retail and distribution positions needed throughout the economy. In addition, the everpresent use of drones raises unique privacy questions at the workplace. If a drone is flying outside the workplace and capturing photographs of employees, who is responsible? If an employee surreptitiously uses drones in private areas of the workplace for surveillance of other colleagues, is the employer at fault?

Sound far-fetched? Some employers are already using wearable drones instead of video surveillance to monitor employees and improve safety.18 Some of these wearable devices have safety warning vibrations and can intervene if the employee approaches a hazardous area.

IV. CONCLUSION

There is no doubt that these and other rapidly changing technologies will directly impact the workplace as we know it. With the increase of recreational drone use, employers should consider policy changes to retain the maximum ability to monitor and address improper use of drones in the workplace while taking advantage of technological advances to improve safety and discipline. Employers should also evaluate likely impacts of driverless vehicles and drones on specific jobs within their industries and plan for the future now.