Xinyi Wu

‘Driving’ Automation: Something Old and Something New

Guest post by Xinyi Wu, PhD Candidate at the University of Edinburgh. 

At the heart of the push for autonomous vehicle (AV) technology is the promise that AVs will improve road safety, reduce congestion and emissions, and boost the economy. Having been vividly described in the discourse among policymakers, industry stakeholders, technicians, and the public, these potentials may transcend the current transport into future scenarios where an autonomous vehicle brings opportunities to society and our everyday life.

During my PhD fieldwork, I also hear concerns about new issues this technology may cause, which are associated with the safety of automation, data privacy, legislation, insurance policies, and trust between humans and machines. By touching the fundamentality of driving (taking the driver out of a vehicle), an AV leads us to reflect on legal, ethical, and philosophical questions and explore the many unknowns.

Apart from new issues, my participants also drew attention to some that have long existed. To name but a few, the inequity of distribution and unaffordability of transport services, the discouragement of active travel which brings about physical and mental problems, the incapacity of public transport, and unsafe travel environments (discrimination and sexual harassment, for example). An AV is not a one-size-fits-all solution to our transport system. We need to understand what technologies can do and what technologies cannot do (alone). And we need to explore how to better integrate AVs into the broad societal environment where they can bring new opportunities and address old issues at the same time.

We need to understand what technologies can and cannot do. And we need to explore how to better integrate AVs into the broad societal environment where they can bring new opportunities and address old issues at the same time.

One female participant, who works at a tech firm, is frustrated by the gender gap reflected in the vehicle design. The driver’s seat, she said, is designed according to the average male’s weight and height. Female drivers who are normally shorter need to adjust the seat and position themselves closer to the wheel, the dashboard, and the pedal. That means, if the airbag is triggered in an accident, female drivers face more pressure and higher risks than male drivers. The worst part is this issue has been ignored by the industry for decades. She doubts by merely adding automated technologies or any fancy technologies that such issues will go away.

Unfortunately, she is correct about the design bias that places women in a risky position. Researchers found that men are more likely than women to be involved in car accidents but when a woman is involved in a car accident, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, 71% more likely to be moderately injured and 17% more likely to die than a man. Since the early 1980s, researchers had argued for an inclusive car design for women. But before 2011, a standard crash-test-dummy was 177 cm by height, 76 kg by weight, and contained male muscle-mass proportions (Invisible Women, p. 198). Apart from the driver’s seat, the seat-belt design also ignored the difference of a female’s body, let alone a pregnant female’s body.

In an autonomous pod ride, we found another design bias that assigns passengers uneven power and control.

It was a partially cloudy day on 14 March 2020 when I commuted for more than an hour from west London to the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park to see the final trial of Capri project. Funded by the government and industry, Capri is the first UK project to trial autonomous pods on public roads. The orange-and-white autonomous pod was first tested without passengers. I joined the three technicians who were ‘walking’ the pod at the speed of 5 mph and noticed the emergency stop controller in one technician’s hand, who was the safety driver.

Capri pod

Walking the pod. Photo by Xinyi Wu.

Later, I shared a 15-minute safe ride at an average speed of 5 mph with another three passengers, two women and one man, who are all friends. At the beginning of our ride, we were quite nervous until the pod successfully turned a corner. We celebrated this small victory with a round of applause.

When the pod slammed the brakes on abruptly for the first time, we were a bit frightened and started exploring the in-vehicle facilities. That’s when we realised the woman who was next to the door on the forward-facing seat could access the emergency stop button on the wall more easily than the rest of us. She and the other passenger on the forward-facing seat could also access an information screen between their seats, which displays the real-time road images captured by the pod’s sensors. Such distribution of power and control posed the question, ‘who is entitled to sit on that privileged seat and has more control over the pod than others?’

Automated technologies will not automatically solve social problems. Who will be included or excluded in this transport revolution? Who decides?

The woman who sat on the backward-facing seat next to me said, “It’s not a big problem as we are friends with each other. But I wonder when four strangers jump on this pod, are they going to negotiate who will be the ‘safety driver’?” If not carefully dealt with, the inequity of distribution might be widened by AVs.

Automated technologies will not automatically solve social problems. They offer us an opportunity to imagine the future, learn from the past, and change the current. But to integrate AVs into our everyday life, we need to dig deeper about ourselves: Who are we? What are our needs and wants, hopes and fears? Who will be included or excluded in this transport revolution? Who decides? And who do we want to become in the time of automation?

Xinyi Wu is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology, School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Her research project is titled, Can Artificial Intelligence Smarten City Transport? A Technography of Connected Autonomous Vehicles in the UK. Her research aims to draw a holistic view and develop a critical analysis of the socio-political discourse of smart transport. Through a technographic investigation of connected autonomous vehicle (CAV) projects in the UK, her research will bridge the top-down and bottom-up perspectives, revealing the multiple meanings of ‘smart’ for different social groups, study how people imagine and live with the possibilities of the future transport afforded by AI, and further explore the human-and-machine relations.

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