Autonomous Driving And The End of The Roadside Motel...

A Google self-driving car spotted in the bay area (Photo by: JOhn Rokos)

A Google self-driving car spotted in the bay area (Photo by: JOhn Rokos)

A few months ago, I was driving from Colorado to California for a reunion. I love to take road trips - the driving, the scenery, and the unexpected are all very appealing to me. I feel like it's always an adventure, and a bit of a challenge.... How far can I drive in one day? Could I make the trip without stopping - other than for fuel, food, and bathroom breaks?

 

Around 2 AM, I got my answer. I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open, but I was still in the middle of the desert. The next town wasn't far, but it would be the last town in Nevada before hitting the California boarder. I needed to figure out where I was sleeping and soon. I was on the phone with my wife Jana, who was helping keep me awake. She knew I needed to get to a motel otherwise I’d try to “push through”, as my “go for it” attitude tends to lead me to do, which might not be the best decision. 

 

She quickly did a search and found me several places to try. I stopped at the first roadside hotel. No vacancies. I tried a second one. No vacancies. Only one hotel left, and luckily, I got one of the last rooms available. It was clean enough and reasonable. It gave me a place to rest my head after a long day of podcasts, AC/DC, and Taco Bell.

 

All this driving made me think about the coming autonomous car revolution just around the bend. With the advent of autonomous cars, everyone has been concerned about the loss of jobs for drivers. Trucking is one of the last good paying jobs for people without a college degree, and it can’t be outsourced. The sharing economy has allowed individuals with a car to launch Uber or Lyft gigs, or just rent their cars with apps like Getaround. We often talk about how autonomous cars will spell the end of driving as a profession, but is that just the surface of what might happen. What about the roadside motel and beyond?

 

When I travel by myself on this trip, I keep driving until I am too tired to keep going. I often try to go beyond that limit, which is not the safest decision, and luckily I usually come to my senses and I pull over. I find the nearest hotel/motel and check for a vacancy. If I could sleep in my car while it did the work, why would I ever stop? Getting some sleep without time lost on the road sounds all to appealing. I could easily see making the choice to drive as much as I wanted to, then, when I got tired, just let the car make the rest of the trip.

 

Decisions like this, not pulling over to stay at a roadside motel, will start to become commonplace as these technologies start to get implemented. With drivers likely to still be required to be in vehicles to start, but with economic forces still driving our decisions, why would anyone drop $100 for a place to stay for a night when they can just put the seat back and let the vehicle keep driving. 

 

As I think about autonomous driving, I can't help but believe that there will be other shifts that will impact a variety of business. It may start with job losses for the drivers themselves, but very quickly it will start to affect the roadside hotels and motels, and the convenience stores next to those hotels and motels, and the diners next to them, and…. See, when the vehicle doesn’t need driver input, and eventually doesn’t need a driver or chaperone at all, then the highway exits don’t need any services and those jobs disappear as well. 

 

At a certain point we need to decide what this world, and this life, is for. The recent election result may be a big wake up call telling us that we can’t just innovate people out of the equation, and that maybe some of this friction (having to stop driving to get some sleep) is just a part of it. We are either on the precipice of a near utopia or a complete collapse. The trick is that either way it’s up to us. Maybe there is a utopia where we pass “If a human can” laws or taxes that incentivize people doing jobs over AI and automation, nearly guaranteeing jobs to all people. And yet, giving business owners the option to keep getting work done (likely at higher expense) if no human is available. Or maybe there is a different answer (although I personally do NOT think universal income is that answer). 

 

Either way, it’s coming. And it’s coming faster than I think any of us can comprehend. Heck, just 3 months ago an 18-wheeler drove itself past my house with no human intervention to deliver beer for Budweiser. Budweiser may make a big deal of their past, with humans guiding Clydesdales through treacherous terrain to bring us all beer, but that doesn’t mean lowering costs by eliminating truck drivers is off the table. And it may mean everything else associated with driving and the open road is at stake as well, including the roadside motel and all the businesses around it.