XXIII.5 September + October 2016
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Driving beyond the bounds of technology

Jonathan Bean

back to top 

Big names including Apple, Fiat Chrysler, Google, and Uber are investing big money in self-driving cars. Underpinning the sense of anticipation around this new form of mobility is more than a dash of utopianism. Self-driving cars, it's been promised, will free us from accidents, traffic, and pollution—not to mention all that time we're spending performing the onerous task of driving. Retailers and advertisers are excited about the prospect of people spending more time in front of screens instead of windshields. Screen time translates into money spent. Drivers will become consumers.

What's not to like? Well, for one, it's awfully easy to focus on promoting the self-driving car while overlooking its potential negative impacts. In part, this is because self-driving cars are framed as a technological improvement on the automobiles we already have. This makes intuitive sense, given the trajectory and familiarity of the technologies that are bundled together to produce the self-driving car. GPS, of course, is widely available and cheap, and some of the other systems, such as lane-departure warning and collision avoidance, are beginning to filter down from luxury cars to the wider market. In the technological frame, self-driving cars are similar to antilock brakes and airbags: safety innovations that ended up mandated by regulation and therefore were rendered affordable for mass consumption.

But seeing self-driving cars as an inevitable advancement in technology can also be understood as a cunning strategy to repress worthwhile questions about what happens to people in this fomenting revolution. Will drivers still be necessary? The language involved offers a clue: It is the Google Self-Driving Car Project, not the Google Driverless Car Project. In a recent interview, Jim McBride, leader of Ford's autonomous vehicles team, went out of his way to explain that the goal is for the car to "perform like a good human driver," so that when a driver turns on the "autonomous system, it's not very different to turning on your cruise control today" [1]. From the perspective of strategy, this is a tricky divide to straddle, especially for businesses such as Ford, a company that has rebuilt its brand around cars that are fun to drive. To this point, Ford still sells its cars to drivers—but these are the very users self-driving cars are writing out of the script. Similarly, Freightliner, a unit of Daimler that manufactures large trucks, was careful not to alienate its current market when it described its recently announced autonomous truck as still requiring a human driver. But what happens when the technology is ready for the big time? In the U.S. alone, nearly two million people are employed as truck drivers, earning an average wage of about $40,000 a year [2]. Not too far in the future, an up-front investment in driverless technology may be better for the bottom line of trucking companies than for employing humans. If this happens, one additional person out of every 100 in the U.S. workforce could be out of a job.

Like Uber, the subject of my previous column, the case of the self-driving car calls into question the boundaries of human-computer interaction. While money and attention are focused on self-driving cars, other technological artifacts, such as the cities where we live, are taken for granted. Design is headed in two different directions. At one end is interaction design, which promises to deliver the Uber-like reorganization of people and material. Style, as has been noted by Cameron Tonkinwise, is written out of the equation [3]. At the other end is aesthetic fetishization, which turns those interested in design into connoisseurs armed with iPhones, Prada, and Tufte books. As Duo Dickinson worries, connoisseurship becomes all that is left [4]. The technological frame of user experience, and its attendant focus on solving problems, explains the focus on mobility that fuels the rise of the self-driving car. Meanwhile, the connoisseurship of design means that cities—once imagined as public spaces to be shared and appreciated by all—are transforming into homogeneous collections of easily recognizable destinations: H&M stores, third-wave coffee shops, and art museums. It's likely that self-driving cars, because they will require that a user know the destination in advance, will accelerate this transformation: "Car, take me to the best latte in town." But with all the focus on how self-driving cars will get us from point A to point B, what is being overlooked is what happens to the space between destinations. Newly opened small businesses may suffer when autonomous cars whiz by. But will self-driving cars also route us around impoverished areas so we don't have to see the less fortunate?

This is a design decision far more important than whether the cartoonish aesthetic of Google's self-driving cars references The Jetsons or Futurama. It is the consequences of design on people that matter. But current conceptions of design and technology conspire to direct our attention away from the intractable challenges we should address, such as climate change, poverty, and equal rights, to problems where an algorithm can produce a solution. The hugely influential companies investing in self-driving cars don't have a stake in the future of our cities as long as there's a market for their product. Likewise, the question of what happens to the livelihood of millions of truck drivers when self-driving technology renders them obsolete is considered part of the remit of neither human-computer interaction nor design. But perhaps it should be.


A useful step toward a more encompassing definition of design is articulated by Elizabeth Shove and a group of colleagues in a series of books and other works. One article [5], an investigation of the prosaic household freezer, seems an especially apt comparison given the automobile's ubiquity. When things like cars or freezers become normal, our culture's unblinking belief in technological progress blinds us to the possibility "that seemingly inevitable arrangements could have been otherwise." In response, they argue for a closer investigation of how the stability of technology is maintained. To do this, they suggest focusing on a three-part heuristic: materials—the stuff involved; discourses—the stories told; and skills—the procedures required. For some of those they studied, freezers are instruments of convenience, a source of ready-to-eat materials compatible with a discourse of busyness and a lack of cooking skills. For others, freezers facilitate the elaboration of cooking and parenting skills, enabling people to participate in the discourse of good parenting by housing an arsenal of raw materials that can be turned into home-cooked meals from scratch. Freezers, they argue, are ubiquitous not because they serve a single purpose, but rather because they are so useful in knitting together otherwise divergent ends and means. The gist is to study not only the system but also its context. Similarly, cars—self-driving or otherwise—serve many purposes. Making sense of them means thinking about the design of cars, roads, cities, and the stories people tell.

To begin with, focusing on the divergent user experiences of design suggests we might start to map out the connections between the narratives in play and the transformations in materials and skills that would accompany a shift to self-driving cars. Using this heuristic, we could start to map out a matrix of the materials and skills that correspond to a panoply of discourses. Doing this—even at a rudimentary level—would help to organize some of the divergent futures now being imagined. Will self-driving cars bring about pollution-free cities or endless sprawl? Will they mean the end of drunk driving or make the perfect bomb-delivery device for terrorists? A future where there's more free time for recreation or the end of employment for millions?

This matrix might also highlight one point of view that is mostly missing from the conversation. Rather than seeing self-driving cars as a solution to a problem, we might begin to see them as another case of the solution being worse than the problem, for the increase in mobility the self-driving car will enable is exponential. The real design opportunity lies at the collective scale of cities, not at the scale of individual transportation. Why isn't the creation of carless cities considered with the same breathless excitement—and enthusiastic investment—that surrounds self-driving cars? One answer is that cities and cars aren't seen in the same terms. One is technology, while the other is taken for granted as the stuff that surrounds us. The same false separation allows us to celebrate the stunning technological achievement of a self-driving truck while forgetting to consider the people that technology will put out of work. Taking a step back to consider technology not as a discrete artifact, but as an inseparably woven element of everyday life, suggests another future entirely.

back to top  References

1. Ranger, S. Ford: Self-driving cars are five years away from changing the world. ZDNet. May 11, 2016;

2. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Bureau of Labor Statistics. 2015;

3. Tonkwinwise, C. A taste for practices: Unrepressing style in design thinking. Design Studies 32, 6 (2011), 533–545.

4. Dickinson, D. Architecture has become a lifestyle choice. Common Edge. Feb. 2, 2016;

5. Hand, M. and Shove, E. Condensing practices: Ways of living with a freezer. Journal of Consumer Culture 7, 1 (2007), 79–104.

back to top  Author

Jonathan Bean is an assistant professor of markets, innovation, and design at Bucknell University. His research deals with domestic consumption, technology, and taste.

back to top 

Copyright held by author

The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2016 ACM, Inc.

Post Comment

No Comments Found