Citizen Perspectives on Driverless Vehicles

Program Areas – Responsible Innovation, Complex Socio-technical Systems

Technological innovation is a powerful force of social change—perhaps the most powerful such force in today’s world—yet it is rarely subject to focused, anticipatory democratic deliberation. In recent decades, however, tools for steering technological change in democratically responsive ways have been developed, tested, and to a limited degree deployed. The Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes is working to bring citizens’ perspectives to bear on the emergence of a potentially world-transforming technology: self-driving vehicles.

Driverless, or autonomous, vehicles appear to be the future of personal transportation. At the convergence of rapid innovations in artificial intelligence, technology platforms, and transportation, autonomous vehicles are poised to revolutionize all aspects of mobility. The broad diffusion of self-driving vehicles into society—which by some estimates could occur as soon as the next decade—represents an example of “creative destruction,” a term used by the economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe the incessant process of new technologies and industries replacing older ones.

An earlier example of creative destruction includes the precursor of driverless vehicles: the introduction of the automobile at the beginning of the last century. As they replaced horses and carriages and the people those modes of transport employed, automobiles opened up new industries, job opportunities, and social patterns. From our reliance on oil to the rise of suburbs, cars shape modern life in ways large and small. Autonomous vehicles stand to do the same, on a scale probably not seen since Henry Ford began mass-producing the Model T in 1908.

Creative destruction, as the term itself implies, can be destabilizing and disorienting. Some of these changes are positive and some are harmful, but it is impossible to know in advance what all of the costs and benefits will be or how they will be distributed across society, over time, and at different scales. Yet it is possible to broaden the diversity of perspectives and interests involved in shaping its course, in order to bring one of society’s most profound forces for change into the arena of democratic deliberation.

A future of driverless cars will cause substantial economic and workforce disruptions, providing an entry point to broader discussions about how technological innovations will affect society. By at least one estimate, technology could eliminate nearly half of current occupations in the future. How will the labor market, and individuals seeking to support themselves, adapt and change? How will we manage the distribution of income when many of us no longer need to work or are unable to find work? What kinds of policy options are available to manage the transition to a much different economy?  And whose voices will play a role in the ways that these questions are answered?

Because these changes are so significant and wide-ranging, the voices and values of everyday citizens must play a central role in the decisions that determine how technological advances affect the broader society. When citizen voices are added to professional expertise and other forms of knowledge, decision makers can make choices that better reflect, include, learn from, and align with public values and concerns. And an informed and engaged citizenry with a say in important decisions is better equipped to adapt to these changes.

Driverless Vehicles Focus Groups

To understand citizen concerns and perspectives on driverless vehicles, CSPO worked with the Kettering Foundation, an institution committed to democratic deliberation as a way for people to collectively address problems affecting their lives, their communities, and their nation. We spoke with diverse focus groups of lay citizens to identify their concerns with respect to self-driving vehicles, so that their voices and values are part of the development and diffusion of this powerful emerging technology.

See the gallery of our conversations in Cumberland, MD, and Baltimore, MD, here.

We produced an issue guide that can be used for community-based, deliberative conversations about autonomous vehicles. The guide can be downloaded at the National Issues Forums website or here: Driverless Vehicles: What Priorities Should Be at the Top of Our List?

Navigating Our Driverless Future

We are now launching an ambitious and unprecedented project to consult citizens around the world for their perspectives on driverless vehicles. In partnership with Missions Publiques, a Paris-based organization dedicated to bringing the voices of ordinary citizens into global discussions, we plan to host dozens of citizen forums throughout Europe and North America in 2019.

Informed by our years of work in the area of participatory technology assessment at the local, national, and global levels, we are currently building a coalition of partners—from philanthropy, industry, and the public sector—who will help us to create rich, substantive materials for deliberation at our public forums and who can use the results in their planning and decision-making processes.

Additional details about the project so far can be found here.

Related Publications

Daniel Sarewitz, “Science and the Cultivation of Public Judgment,” Connections (2017): 67-71.

Nicholas Felt, “Naming and Framing Citizen Concerns about Emerging Technology,” As We Now Think (Dec. 12, 2017).

Meet the Project Team

Principal Investigators

Additional Team Members