How might the design of autonomous vehicles respond to people’s hopes and fears around a more accessible future city?
A Driverless Future?
The idea of a driverless vehicle can seem unsettling, partly because it suggests a lesser amount of control. Autonomous vehicles on the other hand, might engender a different reaction: as something that is made to be self-governing, that doesn’t have to be operated by humans because it can work things out for itself, the autonomous vehicle represents an advanced technology that doesn’t need humans to function.
But the autonomous vehicle is the next step in vehicle evolution. The technology that it requires has existed in varying capacities for the last century – commercial airplanes, for example, are heavily automated meaning they can take off, fly and land on their own. So what do we think of when autonomous technology is presented to us as an inevitability? As a popular subject for Sci-fi, robotics has often been portrayed as something that can go terribly wrong: Skynet, a self-aware form of artificial intelligence, from the Terminator franchise is bent on destroying humankind; Issac Asimov’s short stories from the I, Robot series (1940–1950) contain some of the best known examples of and instances in which humans struggle to control robots precisely because they are designed to be autonomous. Indeed, the idea of autonomous robotics presents some ethical and philosophical questions – as demonstrated by Asimov’s character Cutie (QT1) who says: ‘I myself, exist, because I think.’ Any public distrust and negative per-ception of autonomous vehicle technology could mean that its potential is not considered.
Understanding Public Attitudes
The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design and Vehicle Design department are part of a consortium called GATEway (a project jointly funded by government and industry, awarded by Innovate UK) that aims to understand and overcome the technical, legal and societal challenges of implementing automated vehicles in an urban environment, centred around public trials of autonomous vehicles in Greenwich. The HHCD and Vehicle Design team are exploring the public’s attitude towards the new technology in an effort to understand how their preconceptions of autonomous vehicles might be taken into account in the design of future vehicles, services and infrastructure. It’s about engaging the public in conversation about the technology from the beginning to understand the context for existing attitudes but also to explore the potentially boundless possibilities of what autonomous vehicles could bring to the city.