Co‐existence or displacement: Do street trials of intelligent vehicles test society?
This paper examines recent street tests of autonomous vehicles (AVs) in the UK and makes the case for an experimental approach in the sociology of intelligent technology. In recent years intelligent vehicle testing has moved from the laboratory to the street, raising the question of whether technology trials equally constitute tests of society. To adequately address this question, I argue, we need to move beyond analytic frameworks developed in 1990s Science and Technology Studies, which stipulated “a social deficit” of both intelligent technology and technology testing. This diagnosis no longer provides an effective starting point for sociological analysis, as real‐world tests of intelligent technology explicitly seek to bring social phenomena within the remit of technology testing. I propose that we examine instead whether and how the introduction of intelligent vehicles into the street involves the qualification and re‐qualification of relations and dynamics between social actors. I develop this proposal through a discussion of a field study of AV street trials in three cities in the UK—London, Milton Keynes, and Coventry. These urban trials were accompanied by the claim that automotive testing on the open road will enable cars to operate in tune with the social environment, and I show how iterations of street testing undo this proposition and compel its reformulation. Current test designs are limited by their narrow conception of sociality in terms of interaction between cars and other road users. They exclude from consideration the relational capacities of vehicles and human road users alike—their ability to co‐exist on the open road. I conclude by making the case for methodological innovation in social studies of intelligent technology: by combining social research and design methods, we can re‐purpose real‐world test environments in order to elucidate social issues and dynamics raised by intelligent vehicles in society by experimental means, and, possibly, test society.