Autonomous Individuals in Autonomous Vehicles: The Multiple Autonomies of Self-Driving Cars

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Nissan Research Center – Silicon Valley & Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Nissan Research Center – Silicon Valley

Nissan Research Center – Silicon Valley

We take the polysemy at the heart of autonomy as our focus, and explore how changing notions of autonomy are experienced and expressed by users of self-driving cars. Drawing from work-practice studies and sociomaterial approaches to understanding technologies, we discuss how driving as a task is destabilized and reconfigured by the introduction of increasingly automated systems for vehicle control. We report on the findings of a hybrid ethnographic experiment performed at Nissan Research Center – Silicon Valley, in which we video recorded interactions of 14 participants inside a simulated autonomous vehicle, and conducted semi-structured post-interviews. We look at the responses of our participants in light of three different themes of autonomy, which emerged through the analysis of the study data in the context of a broader program of ethnographically informed research: autonomy as freedom from the task of driving; autonomy as independence and individual labor; and machinic autonomy's ironic opposite, an increasing interdependence with human-machine systems that raises new issues of trust and control. We argue that AV development will have to address the social dimensions of roadway experience, and that this will require a multi-perspective approach (speculative work alongside other empirical examinations) to the specific ways human autonomy and sociality is aided, altered, or undercut by these systems.

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