Driverless cars: can we navigate the complexities on the road ahead?

Autonomous self-driving vehicles open up new possibilities for social interaction and could offer a sanctuary for people – their own private space between home and work. SOCIAL SCIENCES
Autonomous self-driving vehicles open up new possibilities for social interaction and could offer a sanctuary for people – their own private space between home and work.

About 1.35 million people worldwide die in road crashes each year, primarily due to human error, so why does society still baulk at the prospect of robot-controlled vehicles?

Google driverless car.Google driverless car.

A new paper co-authored by UniSA academics Professor Anthony Elliott and Dr Eric L Hsu looks at the potential social impacts of driverless cars, an area that has so far received scant attention compared to the safety, ethical and legal aspects dominating the debate.

In an article published in Current Sociology, based on research funded by the Australian Research Council and conducted at the Hawke EU Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence at UniSA, the authors identify several social factors that could influence both the take-up and/or rejection of driverless cars.

Assumptions about wasted time in an auto-driven vehicle are baseless, they suggest, given we live in an age where our cars are increasingly used for both entertainment and communication.

“People already undertake multiple forms of work and leisure-related activities whilst on the move, and this tendency will only accelerate with driverless cars,” Prof Elliott and his co-authors say.

“Not only would fully autonomous vehicles open up new possibilities for social interaction, they could also represent a sanctuary for people – their own private space between home and work.”

Road rage and driving stress could disappear but so too could the actual physical pleasure of driving.

Driverless cars would open a new world of possibilities for the physically disabled and the elderly, many of whom are robbed of their independence once they forfeit their licence.

However, they could also introduce new – or perpetuate existing – forms of social inequality, the authors point out. Men have always dominated the technological development of cars and transport planning and there’s no reason to think this would change with driverless cars.

Social segregation could also become more marked, with major differences in design, affordability and comfort underlining differences in wealth and class.

Driverless cars likely to reduce need for car ownership and car parks

How might autonomous vehicles change our urban environment? The authors argue they could reduce the need for parking spaces with private car ownership a thing of the past.

But they could also lead to urban sprawl, with autonomous travel making commuting more pleasurable and productive, where distance between home and work is no longer a factor.

Public transport may also fall out of favour as demand for driverless cars increases, with negative consequences for the environment.

Congestion, population growth, lack of parking and the environment are four drivers of change which could lead to the uptake of driverless cars in cities, the authors say.

The financial burden of driving and owning a car is another key factor, with the northern hemisphere already experiencing a decline in both car ownership and driving licences.

“These are attributed to changes in life stage patterns – adults living with their parents longer or choosing to delay or not to have children. Also, people are weighing up the affordability of motoring with ride sharing schemes and similar services.”

If driverless cars cause licences to become redundant, the future for autonomous vehicles will also be assured.

The sociological approach taken by the authors encourages people to look at driverless cars in a more holistic way, rather than narrowing the debate down to safety and engineering factors.

“There are many forces at play when it comes to the development of autonomous vehicles and it’s important that new modes of transportation in the future are socially progressive.”

The likely development of driverless cars is set out in more detail in Prof Elliott’s new book, The Culture of AI: Everyday Life and the Digital Revolution, which is published by Routledge.