Timothy B. Lee: Industry Destruction

This post originally appeared June 23, 2011 on BetterProjects.net

One of my favorite bloggers in the last year has become Timothy B. Lee. While I don’t always agree with some of his libertarian viewpoints, this guy always makes me think. He did so recently with his discussion about how technology innovation cannot always be measured strictly in term of Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The part of his article that most directly relates to those of us who work primarily in projects is this:
Self-driving cars are a good example of where things are heading. They will probably put millions of truck drivers out of work, lowering the cost of almost every consumer product. They’ll make taxicabs drastically more affordable, putting taxi drivers out of work and virtually eliminating demand for off-street parking. They’re likely to have significant environmental benefits, as consumers can order only as much car as they need for any given trip. They are likely to save thousands of lives by reducing accidents. They’re likely to transform the retail sector—how often would you drive to store if a self-driving Amazon-bot delivered your orders in an hour rather than 2 days? And of course they’ll have many other consequences we can’t anticipate.

Stop for a moment and think about what self-driving cars could do to whatever industry it is that you work in. I’ll give you an example from my own personal employer and myself. First, my employer has hundreds of employees who do nothing but deliver food to local stores and thousands more who do nothing but deliver its product end customers. Imagine if, over the next decade, self-driving cars become cheap enough that only the hundreds of drivers who deliver food to local stores no longer have jobs.

Even if my company undertakes no project to build, from nothing, a self-driving delivery truck, we would need a project to implement the self-driving delivery truck someone else built into our organization. Imagine the look on the faces of the delivery drivers when they are told that we’re going to test a product that could potentially end their jobs.

I don’t think anyone would argue that, from the perspective of the drivers, that would be a disruptive technology. For the company, its a huge up-front investment, one which would probably require the replacement of its entire fleet of vehicles, but in the end, it would end up a competitive advantage to no longer need to pay drivers in this way.

Making it (more) personal

But what about me, as a BA? How would self-driving cars impact my life?

Given that I spend, on an average work day, 100 minutes in my round trip commute, a self-driving car would make me more productive. Consider that I average 9.5 hours of work per day (570 minutes), 100 minutes of drive time and another hour and a half of productive time in the evenings (housework, laundry, blogging, etc), I would increase my productive time from 660 minutes to 760 minutes, an increase of just over 15%.

What could you do with an extra 15% of productive time per day? I don’t mean necessarily ‘productive’ as in 'doing work for an employer’, but what about reading a book, listening to a podcast or even writing a book? Maybe I just shift some those 100 minutes into my at the job time and leave at 4:50 each day, knowing that I’ll still be exceeding my normal output, even though I am 'leaving early’ for the day.

With one simple change, at least simple in terms of me doing the cash outlay to purchase a self-driving car, I completely change what I am able to complete in a day. Sure, I could, in theory, just move 5 minutes away from work and would produce essentially the same result, but I don’t want to live 5 minutes from work (not to mention this would make my wife’s commute now around 160 minutes per day).

Never discount the possibility of a technology to be disruptive to your business (or yourself).