Exactly what jobs will self-driving cars satisfy?

On Twitter, I made this observation about the future of self-driving cars:

A moment later, Megan Panatier made this skeptical counterpoint:

This is a great example where it pays to consider the jobs-to-be-done. Self-driving is in the realm of experimentation right now. There’s no hindsight of how obviously this was going to be a success. Self-driving vehicles could end up being the next Segway. An interesting technology that never catches on.

Image via Engadget

How can we begin to know self-driving cars’ fate? Do some outside-in market analysis. Understand what jobs-to-be-done relate to the act of commuting. Know those, and you can determine what opportunities exist for self-driving cars.

To that end, here are four relevant jobs-to-be-done that I see:

  1. I want to get from point A to point B
  2. I want to get work done
  3. I want to improve the environment
  4. I want to enjoy my personal interests

Where can self-driving help? Know that, and you can see how it will fare in the future. In the analysis that follows, self-driving is compared to two common alternatives: regular, manually driven cars; and public transit like buses and trains. Concepts from the Strategyn jobs-to-be-done innovation approach are used to assess the alternatives: outcomes and satisfaction with those outcomes. While a typical job has 50 – 150 outcomes, we’ll focus on a few summary level outcomes here.

Job #1: Point A to Point B

This is the core job of driving. Getting from one place to another. What’s key here is understanding the important outcomes that are desired for this job. The table below shows outcomes for this job, and how well satisfied they are for different transit alternatives.

Outcomes Regular car Bus & train Self-driving
Minimize commute time Satisfaction - medium  Satisfaction - low Satisfaction - medium
Minimize accident risk  Satisfaction - medium  Satisfaction - high  Satisfaction - high
Minimize commute stress  Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - high Satisfaction - high
Increase driving enjoyment  Satisfaction - high  Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - low

Reviewing the desired outcomes, where might self-driving vehicles provide an advantage? It’s dependent on how the different alternatives are considered. For instance, self-driving vehicles will not provide better commute times than manually-driven cars. But they are better than what buses and trains provide. Buses and trains are bound by set routes and schedules. These inject delays in commute times. Cars generally have an advantage here because of their direct door-to-door operation.

But self-driving vehicles do provide improvements over regular cars on two other outcomes: accident risk and commute stress. A great opportunity in ‘accident reduction’ applies to driving under the influence of alcohol. Self-driving cars will get you home safely. In this sense, they are more akin to what Megan Panatier tweeted. They’re like trains.

Taking those three outcomes together, it becomes clearer that self-driving vehicles will provide greater satisfaction on the Point A to Point B job-to-be-done.

There is one outcome where self-driving cars are a step backwards: driving enjoyment. Think about those commercials with high performance vehicles speedily taking curves on beautiful rural roads. The high performance manually driven car market will still be intact even in a world of self-driving vehicles. People will want that visceral pleasure.

Job #2: Get work done

A recent survey sponsored by Jive Software highlighted that people are working outside office hours more and more. While the causes of this vary, the result is that this has become an important job-to-be-done for many. Let’s look at the key outcomes for this job.

Outcomes Regular car Bus & train Self-driving
Increase digital work completed  Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - medium Satisfaction - high
Increase availability for conference calls  Satisfaction - medium  Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - high
Minimize distractions  Satisfaction - medium Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - high

Self-driving vehicles really shine in this job-to-be-done. They essentially become traveling offices. Fewer distractions and the ability to focus on the work tasks at hand.

The other advantage is better availability for conference calls. Ever tried to be on a work call while driving? Your focus is diverted by driving issues. And you really don’t want to be one of those people who loudly talks on the phone while commuting on a bus or train. When a conference call includes a shared screen, you can participate on that via the self-driving vehicle vs. driving a car.

Getting work done is one of those jobs that you might not associate with commuting. But self-driving opens up the ability to better satisfy this longstanding job.

Job #3: Improve the environment

Improving the environment continues to be an important job-to-be-done for a majority of Americans, and the world. And driving is a critical aspect of environmental impact. Two outcomes are assessed for this job below.

Outcomes Regular car Bus & train Self-driving
Reduce emissions  Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - high Satisfaction - low
Reduce fossil fuel consumption  Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - high  Satisfaction - low

When self-driving vehicles are considered as replacements for trains and buses, it’s possible that environmental benefits may be conflated between the two alternatives. Public transit is often touted for its environmental benefits.

But self-driving cars are not public transit. They will still have the same environmental impact of regular cars. Now, as automakers continue to improve the environmental impact of vehicles (electric vehicles, hybrids), then self-driving cars will follow the same improvement curve as regular cars.

However, self-driving vehicles provide no improvement on satisfaction for the key outcomes of the environmental improvement job. Indeed, to the extent they replace public transit (bus, train), they could contribute to increased environmental issues.

Job #4: Enjoy personal interests

Enjoying personal interests is a job that we do everywhere. Read in bed. Crochet during a television program. Engage in physical activity. Video gaming. There are numerous individual jobs-to-be-done here, but we’ll lump them into a summary job for this analysis. Below are two outcomes for this job-to-be-done.

Outcomes Regular car Bus & train Self-driving
Increase time spent on activity  Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - high  Satisfaction - high
Minimize distractions  Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - low  Satisfaction - high

Similar to the ‘get work done’ job, this job is well served by self-driving cars. Regular cars really prevent the ability to enjoy a range of personal interests, due to the majority of time spent on…actually driving.

The individually controlled environment of a self-driving car also facilitates more engagement in personal interests. No competing phone calls, loud conversations, crowded space.

Self-driving vehicles will be fantastic for this job-to-be-done.


Based on analyzing the jobs-to-be-done, two conclusions can be drawn about self-driving vehicles.

Target market: urban areas. The jobs and outcomes outlined herein point to a better fit of self-driving vehicles to urban areas and the surrounding suburbs. People have longer, more stressful commutes than in rural and lower population areas. They also tend to have professional employment where digital work and conference calls are more the norm.

Urban areas do not lend themselves to driving enjoyment. Hard to take those curves when there are red lights, sharp corners and lots of traffic around you. So the ‘increase driving enjoyment’ outcome – a weakness of self-driving – is less relevant in these geographies.

Future design. The current look of a self-driving vehicle is essentially that of a regular car. And why not? The technology is being tested and iterated. No need to adjust a car while the technology is on that stage.

Eventually, self-driving technology will be perfected and be ready for broader adoption. Then the jobs and outcomes outlined herein become more relevant. What we currently know for car interiors and shapes will most certainly change. The basis of design changes from optimizing the driving experience (the outcomes) to optimizing for other jobs-to-be-done. One can imagine basic manual override driving capability for vehicles as a back-up in case the self-driving technology fails.

But the focus of design changes. Vehicles will be optimized for existing jobs-to-be-done that can now be newly satisfied via the self-driving technology. And new internal accessories will be developed to take advantage of this expansion of the market through increased jobs-to-be-done. Like a little exercise during the commute? How about a modified stationary bike inside your car?

Self-driving vehicles will be a source of significant new market opportunities.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.


About Hutch Carpenter
Chief Scientist Revolution Credit

18 Responses to Exactly what jobs will self-driving cars satisfy?

  1. Rick Ladd says:

    Excellent analysis, and synthesis, of this emerging technology. I have learned a lot about the concept of jobs-to-be-done from you. Thanks. Now that I’m becoming more engaged with the field of Decision Science, I believe the concept (JTBD, that is) plays a major role in determining the qualitative factors that go into modeling a better decision.

    I do have one slight disagreement with you regarding the effect of self-driving vehicles on the environment. It’s in two parts. The first relates to private vehicles and their use in commuting. It’s my understanding that self-driving vehicles are somewhat more efficient in their use of energy because they are closely coupled with the vehicle as a system, and the surrounding environment and, therefore, less prone to wasteful driving practices. Humans are far more varied in the methods of accelerating, braking, and taking various road conditions into how they drive a vehicle. Self-driving cars will be capable of more efficient road-handling and fuel conserving methods. The second part relates to trucks, especially those used for transporting goods hundreds and thousands of miles. The environmental effects are similar to those of private vehicles, and may be even greater because of the length of their travels and the number of vehicles traveling around-the-clock. Again, my understanding is there are defensible expectations that self-driving long-haul trucks will be more fuel efficient than today’s vehicles, simply because of the integration of the capability into the vehicle (and the road conditions) as a system.

    As I said, it’s a slight disagreement, though I think the results in the years to come could end up being significant overall. Thanks again for another thoughtful – and instructive – blog post.

    • Thanks Rick. You’re not alone on the feedback regarding increased fuel efficiency. Several others here mentioned it.

      Sounds like on a per-driven mile basis, fuel efficiency can be better. More efficient on-board operations will be one source. I’ve also seen studies that say when vehicles can follow one another only inches apart, there will be an improvement due to lower wind drag.

      Flip side is that people may enjoy the experience so much, they increase the percentage of time they hop in the car. Routine trips that are a pain now become easier. Public transit’s appeal reduces (see Job #1 above). In those cases, increased traveling in cars wil cause more fuel to be consumed.

      Nice piece in the Washington Post that looks at both sides of this:


      Still, no matter what, this will become quite a big market in two or three decades. I do think this is going to take some time to become mainstream. It will follow the technology adoption curve (innovators, early adopters, early majority, etc.).

  2. ipstrategist says:

    Great post, Hutch. Perfect timing as I prepare for a customer visit–I needed a refresher on jobs to be done! Further to the previous comment, I have an addition regarding the environmental benefits of self-driving cars. Self-driving cars are much more amenable to battery power because they can better manage distance traveled vs. power available. My company is actually going this way by starting with developing systems that provide reduced downtime for battery powered autonomous service robots, which are really just small electric vehicles. Specifically, we provide fast charge options for this segment that allow them to charge for shorter times and charge less. The same applies to cars–shorter charging times mean longer run times and less range anxiety. More people will then buy EVs. So, if we are willing to further discuss jobs to be done in transportation in regard to distance traveled/type of transportation needed and conduct the analysis with this in mind, self driving cars will add a lot of value in the environment domain. Cheers!

    • Thanks Jackie. Great to hear about advances on the battery front. Electric vehicle batteries need to go through their own Moore’s Law type of improvement cycle. The better those get, the bigger the EV market will be.

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  4. @joiningdots says:

    Great article!

    Self-driving cars have the potential to significantly reduce the environmental impact, even traditional gas guzzlers. Fuel efficiency is reduced whenever there is friction – i.e. braking and acceleration. Most over-braking occurs when people misjudge road conditions, and then it’s a double negative as they then have to accelerate again after. Self-driving cars could potentially eliminate this problem and lead to massive improvements in miles per gallon from gasoline. (Would also reduce traffic jams and the inefficiencies they cause in so many different regards)

    One of the stumbling blocks is liability – if a self-driving car crashes, who takes the blame? The car manufacturer, the software developer… politics will delay adoption.

    There’s a great book that looks at this and other technologies that will change the future and the political decisions that will influence how they are adopted – Physics for Future Presidents (title should be ‘Physics everyone needs to read about’) by Richard A Muller

    • Thanks Sharon. Smoother driving operations do indeed sound like a great opportunity on the per-mile driving fuel consumption. I’ve also seen studies that show reduced drag can be a significant factor in improved mileage (the way cyclists tuck in behind the rider in front). Once there are smoother, more predictable driving operations, vehicles will be able to drive much closer together, provide aerodynamic benefits.

      Flip side to environmental impact is that the success of self-driving could cause an increase in the number of miles driven in vehicles. It will be easier to take the car for shorter routine trips, and the advantages of self-driving (the jobs/outcomes highlighted herein) may reduce the appeal of mass transit.

      I’d guess it will be a net benefit overall, but unclear how much just yet.

  5. The Inspired Product Manager says:

    I find this interesting not only because of the examples of self-driving cars, but of product planning in general. As a software product manager, I constantly have to ask myself which goal I would like to achieve with the planned feature. Like the previous commenters, I agree that this analysis on brilliant.

    I would like to link this article on my blog http://inspiredproductmanager.wordpress.com if you don’t mind.

    • Thanks, and feel free to link. I agree, the approach here – jobs to be done – is one that applies across all products. Purpose here was to demonstrate the framework in something futuristic. But it works for all products and services.

  6. Akshay says:

    Hi Hutch, interesting insights. But for jobs #2 and #4, a chauffeur driven car would provide many of the same benefits like that of a self-driven car. That’s the most direct alternative to a self-driven car. There are other benefits though. One would be in the scenario in which you don’t want to get into the hassle of employing a chauffeur and also don’t want to drive yourself.

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