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 with the Kettering Foundation 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.

To understand citizen concerns and perspectives on driverless vehicles, CSPO is working 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 are talking with diverse 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.

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).

Driverless Vehicles Focus Groups

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Meet the Project Team

Principal Investigators

Additional Team Members