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Call for papers: The politics of autonomous vehicles

Following our workshop in London before Christmas, we are now planning a special issue of the open access social science journal Palgrave Communications focussed on the politics of autonomous vehicles.

The politics of autonomous vehicles

Editors: Dr Jack Stilgoe (Science and Technology Studies, University College London) and Dr Milos Mladenovic (Department of Built Environment, Aalto University) 

‘Self-driving’, ‘driverless’ or ‘autonomous’ vehicles promise to change the world in profound ways. The suggested benefits include safety, efficiency, accessibility and improved urban environments. However, researchers and others have been quick to raise questions about responsibility for crashes, safe testing and possible wider ramifications for transport systems. In a discussion that has been dominated by science, engineering and narrow questions of ethics, there is a need to draw attention to the old questions of politics: Who wins? Who loses? Who decides? Who pays?  

This collection (special issue) will publish original research that helps anticipate the politics of autonomous vehicles. The focus could be on the road, where vehicles are being tested and interactions with other road users are being worked out, on the lab, where rapid developments in machine learning and simulation are generating new possibilities, on discourses about possible and desirable futures, or somewhere else. 

Despite the ‘autonomous vehicle’ terminology, these technologies, when considered through social science lenses, look far from autonomous. They will be shaped by human interests and expectations, and future sociotechnical systems will be entangled in social worlds (infrastructures, rules, norms, behaviours, institutions and more) in complex and possibly unpredictable ways.   

We invite contributions from researchers on the following themes as they relate to self-driving vehicles:

  • Infrastructures of ‘autonomy’
  • Connectivity and sociotechnical systems
  • Algorithms and AI
  • Data ownership, control and privacy
  • The rules of the road
  • Public vs private control
  • Patterns of transport use, e.g. shared, active etc.
  • Competing for road space
  • Urban design, including ‘shared space’
  • Lessons from other mobility technologies
  • Histories of self-driving futures
  • Testing AV technologies
  • Sustainable technological transitions
  • Participation and democratic governance 

This article collection is an initiative of the UKRI Driverless Futures? project.  

Prospective authors should submit a 200-word abstract and a short biography to the Collection Editors in the first instance. Authors whose proposals are deemed suitable will be invited to submit full papers at any point up until the end of June 2021.

Trusting AI too much can turn out to be fatal – FT Comment

John Thornhill, the FT’s tech editor, has a comment piece today on trust in AI, discussing the recent NTSB investigation of the latest Tesla Autopilot crash. He starts by quoting NTSB chair Robert Summwalt:

“The lessons from this investigation are as much about people as they are about the limitations of emerging technologies,”

He then mentions my argument that “advances in machine learning must be accompanied by social learning.” Even though my new book is pretty short, he makes the argument far more concise than I could manage:

…what is essential, he suggests, is to create a collective societal capacity to understand emerging technologies and decide on the appropriate regulatory framework. We cannot leave all this to powerful private corporations.

Confused of Bloomsbury

I recently attended a talk given by Edmond Awad, one of the team that carried out the research project entitled Moral Machine, amongst other things.  Run from MIT, Moral Machine is an online survey that presents respondents with a series of randomly generated dilemmas based on the so-called trolley problem.  It sets up a series of scenarios in which an automated vehicle is on a collision course and the respondent is asked to choose between two courses of action that will have differing effects on both occupants of the vehicle and those crossing its path.  In addition to being told the number of individuals at risk of fatal injury, respondents are also presented with information about their characteristics, ranging from age and gender to species (human, cat, dog), status, level of fitness and, even, housing status.

The survey has attracted a very large number of responses, with a paper in Nature reporting on the first 40 million “dilemma responses”.

This member of the audience found the whole thing very intriguing and came away thinking that trolley problems remain the question after the question.  That is, before we ask whether an automated system should prioritise on the basis of age or gender, say, we should be asking whether automated systems should be allowed to prioritise at all.  But the trolley problem has demonstrated an enduring appeal to professional and armchair philosophers alike for many years and we should not deny them their fun.

I got confused, though, after I asked Dr Awad whether any respondents had pointed out that no automated system would ever be able reliably to identify whether Person A was homeless (this being one of the attributes tested by Moral Machine).  He replied that this wasn’t the issue: what his experiment was testing was people’s values and, in effect, concerned itself with the aftermath of any crash (whether the “right” individuals had died) than the algorithm the automated system might employ.  Confused of Bloomsbury responded that the homeless/not homeless attribute in the survey therefore wasn’t included to test people’s attitudes to what automated vehicles might do.  And Dr Awad replied that none of this was: no one responding to the survey actually expected automated vehicles to do as depicted in the scenarios.  (I hope I represent his words fairly.)

If my understanding of what he said is correct, I have two comments.  The first is that there is a world of difference between something not being possible now and not being possible ever.  I suspect that most, if not all, of those who responded to the survey did so on the basis that an automated vehicle might one day be designed such that at least some of their preferences could be enacted.  So I’m very dubious about seeing the entire experiment as speculative.  If it was, why use automated vehicles at all?  Why not use the conventional out-of-control trolley, if all that is sought is an understanding of people’s preferences concerning who should die in such scenarios and of their attitudes to acts and omissions?  But I can’t believe that the AV element is nothing more than a MacGuffin: members of the research team have done other work on AVs and are clearly interested in ethical questions relating to this technology.

So, second, if I’m right that the researchers are asking about AVs because they are interested in AVs, the fact that the scenarios used in Moral Machine are manifestly beyond what artificial intelligence is likely ever to be able to do makes their inclusion at least frivolous and, possibly, irresponsible.  Automated vehicles are the subject of intense discussion at present precisely because a variety of actors are hard at work bringing them onto our transport networks, with the high probability that humans (homeless or otherwise), dogs and cats will be involved in collisions.  I think it’s therefore incumbent on any researcher purportedly doing serious research on the subject to stay within the bounds of what is reasonable.  To give the team the benefit of the doubt, I suppose the research could meaningfully illuminate the debate if we were envisaging a future world in which humans are tagged with their attributes, including their housing situation, thus relieving the vehicle of having to discern such details.  But that doesn’t even bear thinking about.

Has the Driverless Future arrived?

Ten days ago, journalist Ed Niedermeyer became one of the first people to have a trip in a genuinely driverless car on public roads without a nervous company demanding a non-disclosure agreement. Niedermeyer is no self-driving cheerleader. His work is well-researched, balanced and detached from the hype. My guess is that Waymo asked him as a display of their self-confidence.

There are currently hundreds of Waymo cars moving around the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona, with thousands more on the way. The driverless future, it seems, is already here. Except that it isn’t. This technology is not an iPhone. It cannot just be bought and used. While for a few people in a limited area it may already be a reality, for most people in most places it will remain an impossibility for the foreseeable future. The people developing the tech are keen on announcing breakthroughs, which give some narrative zing to a story that has over the last year become a bit flat.

Oliver Cameron, the CEO of Voyage, is developing self-driving technology in a unique context. His vehicles are shuttling retirees on private roads around their purpose-built community – The Villages – in Florida.

I have admired Cameron since I heard him emphasise the value of a slow, responsible approach to technology development here. He has just published a discussion of what he sees as Waymo’s Rubicon-crossing ‘insane step forward’.

He thinks ‘we now live in a driverless world’. I’m worried he might believe it.

William Gibson had an adage:

‘The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.’

Technological determinists like to invoke it when they claim new technologies are inevitable and just around the corner. They rarely acknowledge that the distribution of new technologies is perpetually uneven. Technologies tend in fact to follow what Robert Merton called the Matthew Effect: For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance.

Cameron knows that getting a self-driving car to work requires means getting the conditions right as well as smartening up the sensors and the software. Self-driving cars are unavoidably contextual. When talking about the progress of self-driving technology, Cameron is right to say ‘It’s a matter of where, not when’. There are circumstances in which the driverless future has been with us for a while. In London, the Docklands Light Railway was christened in 1987. It is relatively uninteresting because the conditions under which its automation works are so tightly constrained.

The future has arrived. (Credit: Flickr user SV1XV)

Waymo’s world is vastly more complex than the DLR’s, but it remains geofenced. The cars work because they know the roads and they know what to expect. Take a Waymo outside Phoenix and it becomes just another minivan. To get a genuine sense of the future, we need to ask why Waymo is in Phoenix, work out the conditions for the technology’s success (economic, political, meteorological, infrastructural and cultural) and ask where next? There will be places with wildly different conditions in which driverless technology will necessarily look very different, and countless more where the incentives for innovation will never line up.  

The definition and distribution of futures will not be straightforward. Cameron expects public scrutiny and does not shy away from it:  

‘There will likely be companies who abuse their responsibility to deploy this technology responsibly, making short-term decisions that may compromise safety.’

Following the recent revelations about the Uber crash (see my tweet thread is below), one can see the reputational risk.

However, if Voyage, Waymo and other developers want to innovate responsibly, they shouldn’t swallow their own exhaust. One can understand why innovators tell themselves

‘Fully self-driving technology is right… Fully self-driving technology is necessary.’

But they shouldn’t expect everyone else to agree. Public resistance may not be ‘a natural cycle that will one day pass’, as Cameron hopes. The futures that most of us experience will look very different from the ones imagined by technologists. They always are.

Calculating route

A public consultation on self-driving cars has raised important and challenging questions, says Jack Stilgoe (reprinted from Research Fortnight’s Political Science blog)

The hype surrounding self-driving cars is huge, and not entirely unjustified. There are big potential benefits for safety, efficiency, mobility and access, but they won’t come without careful policy design. If we don’t get the governance right, we could end up with more congestion, less liveable cities and new dangers.

Much of the excitement has so far revolved around artificial intelligence. Self-driving cars offer a real-world test case for the powers of machine learning. But the issues are much more than technical ones.

If the technology is going to learn to drive, it needs to be tested on actual roads. Self-driving cars therefore involve the public display of innovation, with developers using roads as their laboratories.

The UK government recognises the scale of opportunities and potential risks, which is why it commissioned the world’s first large-scale, in-depth public dialogue to investigate the hopes, concerns and questions about connected and autonomous vehicles.

In conversation

The exercise was initiated by Sciencewise, the government’s public dialogue agency, and I was lucky to be part of the team that designed and ran it. The full report was released on 10 October.

George Freeman, member of parliament for Mid Norfolk and holder of the newly created ministerial post for transport technology and innovation, has discussed the findings in the New Statesman. Unsurprisingly, he accentuates the positive.

He’s right that there was a lot of excitement about the possibilities, but that’s not the whole story. Policymakers still have a lot of work to do if the technology is going to be broadly acceptable.

The dialogue exercise took place in five UK locations, over three days between October and December 2018. At each location, around 30 members of the public, chosen to be as diverse as possible, heard about self-driving cars, spoke to experts and, in some places, had a hands-on—or rather, hands-off—experience in a prototype or a simulator. Their conclusions, priorities and questions offer a blueprint for governance.

Until now, when ordinary people have been asked what they think of self-driving cars, they have in most cases been treated as potential consumers. Instead, we treated them as citizens.

Who’s driving?

Participants quickly grasped that the issues were not just to do with how safe the technology would be, or how it should deal with so-called ‘trolley problems’ involving choices between doing different types and degree of harm.

They wondered how, if the technology was going to be as transformative as the car was in the 20th century, our worlds and lives might change. They saw enormous potential benefits in providing mobility to old or disabled people—but they also worried if these opportunities would be available to all, or if the technology would follow the money and only be an option for rich people.

People recognised the safety benefits, but they also demanded government oversight so that, as well as competing, developers shared information and developed standards. There were concerns about control—not just giving up the steering wheels of their beloved cars, but also giving up control of their mobility.

They didn’t want to be hostages to big technology companies. One participant in my group said: “Cars were liberating for the workings classes and older people. This seems to be restricting choice.” Another asked: “What if someone doesn’t want a driverless car?”

There was an ambivalence that is typical for new technologies: “It will be for the greater good, but it worries me. I don’t know if I personally can make all the changes required to adapt to this world.”

Discussions boiled down to four big questions: Will the technology be safe? Will it be available to all? Who will be in control? And how do we get to a future with self-driving vehicles on the road?

How should policymakers make sense of this? It’s not easy. The will of the people is never as clear as some would like to make out. But the UK government has an opportunity.

Our economy is no longer beholden to powerful car manufacturers. Policymakers see the opportunities in software, rather than hardware, given the strength of the UK’s science base. And the UK has an enviable track record for good governance of complex scientific and technological issues.

Public deliberation is a vital part of the story. We shouldn’t see it as an endorsement or a veto of particular technological options. Instead, we should see it as the start of a genuine collaboration between innovation and regulation.