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How Driverless Cars, Drones and More are Changing Your Workplace

Accessibility, liability and flexibility will all be guided by the coming revolution.

Nobody knows when the driverless car revolution will hit, but most are certain it will.  While some estimate driverless cars won’t become mainstream for several decades, many companies (including Audi, Ford, Volkswagen and General Motors) are scheduled to launch driverless vehicles by 2021.

Competition to invest in driverless cars is heating up, with major companies looking to capture the market early. In October 2016, Otto, the self-driving truck subsidiary of Uber, announced that they had shipped 45,000 cans of Budweiser beer in a self-driving truck. The truck drove without a driver over 120 miles from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Colorado Springs.

In January 2016, General Motors announced plans to deploy thousands of self-driving electric cars in partnership with ride-hailing affiliate Lyft Inc. Early this year Ford announced they were betting $1 billion on the world’s self-driving car future through a majority investment in a startup called Argo AI.

The race is on and lawsuits abound to prove it. Waymo LLC (a subsidiary of Alphabet) sued Uber Technologies Inc. alleging trade secret misappropriation, patent infringement and unfair competition related to Waymo’s self-driving car technology. Tesla recently settled a lawsuit against Sterling Anderson, the former director of its Autopilot program, for leaving to join a start-up called Aurora.

Driverless Cars and the Workplace 

The impact of driverless cars on the economy will be far-reaching. Likely there will be displacement of many cab, Uber, Lyft, truck and local delivery drivers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, truck drivers alone account for 1.7 million drivers and about $70 billion annually in salary. With the increased utilization of driverless car-taxis constantly on the move, there will be less need for parking, freeing space for housing and offices. 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.

Other changes to the economy are less obvious, but also impactful. For example, McKinsey & Co. predicts that self-driving cars could reduce crash rates up to 90 percent. This means less money spent by individuals on car repairs, maintenance and health bills related to auto accidents. 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 cars, employees could work while on their way to work, and due to decreased traffic, have more time to work in the first place.

The launch of driverless vehicles will also impact core areas of workplace law. For example, in many positions driving has long been considered an essential function of the job. Employees who cannot drive for medical reasons could request a self-driving car as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Similarly, some individuals have been denied driving positions due to religious concerns regarding photographs and fingerprint checks. Those individuals might claim that the employer could provide a religious accommodation by allowing them to ride in a driverless vehicle.  Whether providing such an accommodation would be an undue burden would likely be an issue in litigation, particularly where the company provides vehicles to other employees.

Another area where human resources departments might see a change is in the background check and motor vehicle report arena. Many companies require pre-employment motor vehicle report checks, which are used to screen out potential employees. Once driving is no longer an essential function of most jobs, a candidate’s driving record might no longer be relevant to the hiring decision.

Drones and More

We can also expect sweeping changes in the delivery of goods. Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration does not allow autonomous drone delivery out of the human line of sight. Amazon, however, has made drone deliveries in Britain, and Domino’s has delivered pizzas by drone in New Zealand. Other companies have made human supervised drone deliveries in the United States. The drone delivery firm Flirtey successfully completed the first fully autonomous, FAA-approved urban drone delivery. The company delivered bottled water, emergency food and a first aid kit.

The delivery of packages by automated drones will affect a wholesale change in the nature and types of retail and distribution positions needed throughout the economy. In addition, the ever-present 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 devices instead of video surveillance to monitor employees and improve safety. Some of these wearable devices have safety warning vibrations and can intervene if the employee approaches a hazardous area.

There is no doubt that these and other rapidly changing technologies will directly impact the workplace as we know it. Companies should begin thinking and planning about how these new technologies might impact their operations and their workforce.

Ryan Lessmann and Stephanie Lewis are principals at Jackson Lewis. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com.