The Importance of Citizen Engagement

The Importance of the Citizen Perspective in the Development of Autonomous Road Vehicles

Professor Graham Parkhurst, Centre for Transport & Society, UWE Bristol[1];

Government departments, technology developers and industrial strategy advisors across the globe have identified numerous potential benefits from the introduction of autonomous road vehicles (ARVs). These include ‘vision zero’ levels of road safety through eliminating human driver error, greater social inclusion in the case that people without driving licences or driving skills can gain access to cars, and reduced congestion and emissions if vehicle progress is smoother due to the motion being managed with respect to the road conditions and coordinated with other vehicle movements.

However, as has been highlighted by recent political currents, the views of experts are not necessarily simply accepted by the wider population. This creates a dilemma for the promoters of new ideas: individual citizens rarely have the time or motivation to themselves become expertly-informed on a topic. So if the professional experts are not seen as a trusted source of information, ideas about and behaviours towards an innovation, such as ARVs, will be formed drawing on a subset of the available information. This subset will be perceptually filtered to a manageable level, and this process is likely to be influenced by, and potentially biased by, a range of processes. Individuals may be influenced by information sources which are trusted, but may have particular vested interests to promote, or themselves may have selected information in a subjective way in order to support a particular perspective. Individuals may draw upon those past personal experiences with new technologies judged to be nearest. However, those experiences may or may not provide a relevant precedent. Or wider emotional-perceptual frames, for example suspicion with respect to robots and artificial intelligence in general, may dominate judgements, before any analysis of the specific capabilities of the particular new technology product is undertaken.

The involvement of citizens in the research and development process of ARVs can assist in aligning the expert and citizen perspectives in a number of ways. First, a small number of citizens can become users of the technology under test, and have the potential to become ambassadors for the innovation as ‘trusted informants’ in society: trusted because they are ‘people like us’ with no particular vested interests. Second, the involvement of citizens demonstrates that the technological development is being conducted, as far as possible, in an open, transparent way. Lastly, and most importantly, citizen involvement provides information about people’s actual usage and experiences: in the form of physiological measurements, observations, and volunteered insights. This information can assist with the evolving design and deployment of ARVs to meet social needs and expectations more effectively, and at the same time assisting commercial producers with their marketing.

Indeed, the exchange of knowledge brought by citizen involvement emphasises that the expert perspectives are not infallible: the adoption of ARVs must not be seen as simply a problem of effective communication. In particular, the expert claims about the range and extent of benefits are dependent on a host of assumptions and particular scenarios of adoption. For example, safety benefits will likely arise in proportion to the share of ARVs in the circulating vehicle fleet. Other benefits, such as the smoothing of traffic flow, might need certain thresholds of fleet share to be achieved. And some benefits, such as social inclusion, will only arise with particular thresholds of technological development being achieved, for example, full automation will be required before citizens unable to drive can travel without a qualified driver in an ARV. Whilst there is not a consensus on when full autonomy can be achieved, even if it began today, a complete transition to full ARVs would take decades. So a major challenge for social researchers working on ARV innovation is how to present this transition in a way that is sufficiently detailed to be realistic, honest and inclusive, whilst not exceeding the willingness of citizens to engage in a project that may not be fully realised in their own lifetimes.

[1] The author is leading the social and behavioural work package of the Innovate UK-funded autonomous vehicles project ‘Venturer’ .