Auto Ethnography

Share Share Share Share Share Share

by FIONA MOORE, Royal Holloway, University of London

self parking

“Where is Hassan?” I asked the assembled team of programmers. “And please don’t tell me he’s on the track, running with the automobiles?”

Rose tossed her blonde hair and rolled her eyes like the sorority girl she otherwise completely failed to resemble. “OK, but that’s only because he’s down in the garage in his sleeping bag, recharging with the automobiles.”

“You really should do something about that, Professor Leibowitz.” That’s Ruth, incisive and sharp, perched on the edge of her wire-frame office chair, chin resting on her hand, fixing me with her birdlike eyes.

“Why should he?” Ay shifted his slightly-too-tall frame. “We’re in completely uncharted territory here with these cars. I say, if unorthodox methods work, then use them.”

“Mind elaborating, Atticus?” I said, just to see the tension manifest in a tiny quirk at the corner of his mouth. No, he couldn’t help what his parents named him, but I could never quite resist the puerile impulse to tease him about it.

“All I’m saying is, it makes sense,” Ay continued. “We programme a self-driving car, and to make it really effective, we have to make it smart, and random, and, also, knowledge-sharing. So….” he shrugged. “It makes sense that they’ve...”

“They’ve what?”

“Become social.”


I found Hassan exactly as reported, in the garage, where the prototype Verves idled, hooked up to their recharging stations. Hassan was sitting on the concrete floor, his skinny back propped up against his bedroll, his grey Formula 1 hoodie pulled up around his ears to keep out the cold, writing up some notes on his tablet.

“Why aren’t you hooked up to one of those rechargers?” I asked by way of opening gambit, sitting down next to him, a little more stiffly than I would have liked, and leaning up against the wall. Both it and the floor were cold.

Hassan laughed shortly, putting down his stylus. “That’s very funny, Professor Leibowitz.”

“No, it isn’t,” I acknowledged. “Look, you’ve been working with me for what, three years now? You know I’m all in favour of left-field and outside-the-box. But this is just...” I struggled for the word. “Anthropomorphism.”

“Actually, it’s the exact opposite of anthropomorphism,” Hassan flipped through documents on his tablet. “That’s why I’m down here. Because if they’re developing culture, or have developed culture, then the only way we can understand it is through participant-observation. On their own terms.”

I couldn’t quite stop my eyes from rolling up. “Participant-observation? What, you think you’re Margaret Mead or something?”

“Why does everyone think this is so crazy?” Hassan said. “Right from the start, we were using human models of intelligence to programme these things. Looking at how people learn, through reading, and then through experience, and through processing that experience. I mean, you’ve got psychologists on the team.”

“Well, a psychologist,” I admitted, thinking of Ruth.

“So you take my point,” Hassan insisted. “We’ve basically created a new intelligent species, and we need to understand it and work with them—not just reprogramme them and treat them as things.”

“You’re a programmer, though, not a psychologist.”

“My mom was an anthropologist,” Hassan said, surprising me. “I was born in Sichuan, because she was living in a little farming village, studying peasant cultures. I grew up playing with the local kids, going to the local school. When I asked why we did it, she said living with people was the only way to learn about them, about the things they can’t say in interviews because they don’t consciously know it. So. Since we keep coming up with surprising behavior from the cars that we can’t just explain by going over the programmes, I’m repurposing participant-observation.”

“So what do you do on this participant-observation?” I asked. “You sleep in the garage, OK. Do you run along the track with them?”

“Actually, yeah, I do, to some extent,” Hassan said. “I can’t do all the things they do, but I do follow them around the tracks, I walk around with them during their processing periods. I try to see things at their level, from their perspective.”

“Do you go from zero to fifty in ten seconds?”

Hassan laughed shortly, again. “What I can’t participate in, I observe,” he said. “I’m not deluded enough to think I’m a car. Any more than my mom thought she was Chinese. But I’m trying to figure out how the Verves learn, as best I can.”

“Seriously, though, Hassan,” I said. “You’re a smart guy and you make a good point, but the rest of the team are starting to talk. You need to stop following the cars around and get back in the lab.”

“Just give me a little while longer on this,” Hassan said. “I’m keeping up with my programming work, aren’t I? No complaints about any of it?”

“No,” I admitted. In front of us the Verves sat silent; I could hear a slight hum from the too-bright lamps overhead. “Okay, you’ve got a few more days on this. But try to keep the woo to a minimum, all right?”


“Mind swapping duties with me for the passenger testing tomorrow, Rose?” Ruth asked, as she divided her attention between her coffee cup and her phone.

“No problem,” Rose said. “Why?”

“Nothing much, I’m just convinced T-44Y hates me,” Ruth said absently, swiping left on an e-mail.

Rose snorted. “You doing a Hassan?” Over where I sat at my desk, my office door open, my ears pricked up.

Ruth looked up, smiled. “What, me? No way. Just…. Something about that particular car, it just never seems to work right for me. The others? Fine. T-44Y, though… it’s always going wrong.”

“Not just you,” Ay’s head popped up over the top of his workstation. “I swear that thing’s mean. Won’t work for anybody. Except maybe Hassan the Automobile Whisperer, who knows?”

“Fine,” Rose said. “I’ll be the passenger, you be the observer. Saves me having to write the report afterwards. You OK with that, Professor?”

“Back in a minute,” I said, checking the roster and heading for the lab door. Someone was going to have to nip this in the bud.


“Hassan,” I pleaded as I took the seat next to him in the observation booth, “you’ve got to stop this. I think you’re becoming a meme.”

Hassan ignored me. “Just watch,” he said, pointing out to the test track. As usual, it was set up in a simulation of an unusually busy urban road; obstacles, traffic lights, construction sites. All to provide decision points for the cars. Sometimes we’d have people on the track—trained stuntmen and women, usually, just in case something went wrong. So far, nothing had.

“What am I supposed to be looking at?”

“Ah…there.” The doors had opened and the cars were all emerging out onto the track. A few of them drove rapidly back and forth, seemingly observing the terrain; others slowed to a crawl, sensors working overtime. It was, I thought, a bit like watching a pack of dogs in an unfamiliar yard—but I sternly warned myself against the temptation to think of them that way.

Hassan pointed again. “Look at that spot there. Over by the stack of traffic cones.” I noticed one of the cars drive up to it, pause for a moment, then drive off again. Then, as I continued to watch, another one drove up, paused, then drove off. Before long, all the cars had done that. Then, and only then, did they queue up to begin the track exercise.

“No kidding,” I said. “What’s special about that spot?”

Hassan looked slightly triumphant. “It’s the spot where Prototype T-24X crashed.”

It was a minute before I processed that. “Oh, come on.”

“No, really.”

“Look,” I said. “We’ve had about forty crashes on that track since then. Are you telling me they’ll do that every time?”

“No, just that one.”

“What makes it special?”

Hassan paused. “Every other crash, we’ve been able to recover the microprocessor, fit it into a new body,” he said. “T-24X is the only one where we couldn’t. It burst into flames, remember?”

“I do,” I said. “So you’re saying…they’ve got mourning behaviour?”

Hassan shrugged, slowly. “I’m not sure if it’s mourning, exactly,” he said. “But I think they’ve got a concept of death. A different one to ours, but one that makes sense for them.”

“That’s crazy,” I said.

“Got a counterexplanation?”

I thought a minute. “No,” I said. “I’m sure I’ll come up with one, though.”

Hassan looked even more vindicated. “All I’m saying is,” he said, “if they have intelligent, social behaviour, then we need to study them. And on their own terms.”

“And what then?” I asked. “Would reprogramming them constitute an invasion of their rights?”

“I don’t know,” Hassan admitted. “But it’s something we’ve got to think about, isn’t it?”

“OK, here’s one,” I said. “The team in the office says T-44Y’s got an attitude problem. What do you have to say to that?”

Hassan shook his head matter-of-factly. “T-44Y’s just territorial. See that?” I followed his pointing finger, saw T-44Y slowly edging another car out of its lane. “Likes the inside-but-one lane. Gets really anxious when the driver takes another lane. Which is most of the time, because nobody else seems to notice these things.”

“OK, I’ll let Rose and Ruth know that,” I said.

“Also tell them it hates seeing anybody else get into the lane. Other cars, other people, the cleaning vehicle—”

“You’re saying that’s why the resurfacing machine got trashed the other day?” I snorted. “That’s ridiculous.”

Hassan shrugged innocently. “It’s not a human culture,” he said. “You’ve just got to understand it on its own terms.”


I was in my office in the lab, filling out some report forms, when my phone sounded, making me jump. I answered it.

“Professor Leibowitz!” Ay on the other end, on the verge of hysteria. “Sir! You’ve got to come down to the test track! We’ve called an ambulance and—”

“Slow down, Ay,” I said. “What do you mean? An ambulance?”

“There’s been an accident—” Ay choked out. I put the phone down and ran to the elevator.

Emerging onto the track, I caught the scene in flashes. A knot of cars pulled over to one side, their hazard lights flashing; irresistibly I thought of them as bystanders at a tragedy. Ruth, sitting on the ground, staring straight ahead and biting the side of her hand. Ay rushing forward, gabbling at me in words I couldn’t take in. The car, the one Ruth said hated her, hated everyone, its number painted on the side, T-44Y, and in front of it a skinny, prone figure, limbs splayed like a doll, lying across one of the measuring lines. 500 metres, I noted calmly, in the way that at moments of crisis trivia becomes deadly important.

“I swear I didn’t do anything.” Rose, terrified. “I was just the passenger. Making notes. But I swear, I swear it went straight for Ruth.”

“It did?” I couldn’t disbelieve it. “But...” I said dumbly, “but Ruth’s right over there.”

“Hassan,” Ay explained, at my elbow. “Hassan pushed her out of the way. I’m sorry, Professor, I’m sorry...”

I rushed over to the lifeless body. “The second lane,” I said, disbelieving. “He was right. Damn thing’s territorial.”

“What?” Rose said.

“Nothing,” I said. “Just something we’ve all got to think about from now on.”


The door opened in the rear of the observation booth. “It’s me, Ay,” the dark figure behind it said, coming in and sitting down in the other chair. “I bring coffee.”

“Aw, thanks.” I accepted the paper cup, sipped at the hole in the lid. “Come join me. I’m just making some notes.” Below us, on the track, the cars were being released for a free-processing period, allowed to explore the track, figure out the problems, communicate their solutions. T-44Y was conspicuous by its absence, having been withdrawn for reprogramming—something I wouldn’t have considered an ethical issue a month ago, but they’d had to go over my head to do it this time. I was bombarding them with paperwork in the hope that it would stop the process, or at least slow it down until I’d managed to prove Hassan’s hypothesis.

Ay smiled a bit sadly. “Like Hassan.”

“Yeah, like Hassan. Listen,” I said. “I’m putting in for more funding. Read this and tell me what you think.” I passed Ay my tablet.

Ay took it, frowned. “Anthropologists?” he said. “Cultural observations? Artificial intelligence and socialisation?” He handed it back. “I’m sorry, Professor,” he said, “but weren’t you the one saying Hassan was out in left field with this idea of his?”

“Oh, I was,” I admitted. “I was. But I’m coming to think he’s got a point. And after all,” I said, “if we’ve created another species, as intelligent as ourselves, shouldn’t we study them like we study ourselves?”

Out on the track, the cars were emerging. They drove about, making little scouting movements, or crawled along the edge of the track. A pair of them matched each others’ movements with balletic precision.

Then, one by one, they all drove to the 500 metre line. Each paused, right on the line, right on the spot where the body had lain.

Then each one drove on.

Fiona MooreFiona Moore is Professor of Business Anthropology at Royal Holloway, University of London. She received her doctorate from Oxford University, where she studied at the Institute for Social and Cultural Anthropology, in 2002. Her research on identity and culture in German multinational corporations, chiefly BMW UK, has been published in the Journal of International Business Studies, Management International Review and Thunderbird International Business Review. She has written a monograph, Transnational Business Cultures, on German expatriates in the City of London, with a second forthcoming monograph on Taiwanese elite labour migrants in London and Toronto, and she has worked with a multinational team conducting a study of Tesco's corporate culture. Her current research focuses on the development of international knowledge networks by Taiwanese professionals in the UK and Canada. She also reviews and writes science fiction for a number of publications. More information is available at


Ethnographic Study Lifts the Hood on what REALLY Goes On inside that Car, Brigitte Jordan et al.

Operationalizing Design Fiction with Anticipatory Ethnography, Joseph Lindley et al

Leave a Reply