Self-driving cars or automated vehicles (AVs) promise to be one of the most disruptive technologies of the 21st Century. Proponents imagine them as a solution to problems as varied as road safety, sustainability, traffic, and accessibility. Governments in the UK and elsewhere see the potential to secure economic growth and new high-tech jobs. The UK’s Industrial Strategy, launched in 2016 and refreshed in November 2017, has AVs as a priority, backed by substantial investments in science and engineering. Consultants and investors are optimistic. Morgan Stanley (2014) forecasts a multi-trillion dollar global market with billions of extra dollars in productivity gains in a ‘New Auto Industry Paradigm’. KPMG (2012) calls AVs ‘The Next Revolution’.
The history of science and technology tells us that paradigm shifts and industrial revolutions are rarely smooth and never just about science and technology. Policy reports have already identified the potential for self-driving cars to worsen inequalities by taking away millions of driving jobs. The development of the technology is not pre-ordained, nor will it be unproblematic. As self-driving cars encounter pedestrians and other vehicles on the road, new questions of responsibility come to the fore.
We should ask who is driving innovation. Are we ready to hand over control of our cars and our futures to the developers of self-driving cars? Can we anticipate the politics of self-driving cars? How should we imagine alternative futures? What do members of the public think? How should new technologies be governed?
The Driverless Futures? project was led by Professor Jack Stilgoe. It ran from January 2019 to March 2022, as a collaboration between University College London and UWE Bristol, funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council.