Institute for Transport Studies (ITS)

Automated vehicles, social implications and equity – making automated vehicles a force for good? 

Supervisors: Caroline Mullen and Zia Wadud

There is excitement and nervousness about a future containing automated vehicles. Automated vehicles are claimed to hold promises of improving fuel efficiency and safety, providing the freedom of the car to non-drivers and the freedoms of not driving to those previously stuck behind a wheel. The counterparts of these promises are concerns that automation could accelerate practices of reliance on private vehicles with the problems that brings for congestion, along with land and energy use.  This in turn may increase social exclusion faced by people who cannot afford, or for other reasons do not use motor vehicles.  Coupled with this is recognition that automation creates ethical dilemmas since it will be vehicle programmers, not drivers, who determine how to respond to potential collisions. The future is not fixed, so there is not inevitability about the realisation of any of these promises or concerns.  For instance, concerns about congestion and land use might be mitigated if increasing use of automated vehicles is coupled with wider processes which reduce travel by powered vehicles. On the other hand, widespread availability of automated vehicles and a policy of predict and provide for road infrastructure, may rapid increase both congestion and transport energy demand. 

There are two broad and interdisciplinary areas of investigation of the social and equity implications of automated vehicles. First is what near- and long-term futures for automated vehicles would be socially desirable. Second, is how or whether technological change and regulation, can be steered by citizens and policy makers to help realise benefits and avoid the risks associated with automated vehicles?  This PhD topic can focus on either or both of these areas of investigation, addressing a range of questions, including but not limited to:

  • How do technological developments related to automated vehicles, existing built environment and transport infrastructure, regulations, social trends and norms enable us to think about what futures are possible?
  • How might we assess the social, distributional and environmental impacts of these futures?
  • What forms of citizen and policy action are capable of steering developments in automated vehicles and their use towards a more desirable future, given the complexity of, and uncertainty around the technical and social factors influencing developments?

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