Self-Driving Cars and Society: Relating Technologies, Socioeconomic Scenarios and Regulation Within The Radical Innovation

Center for Science and Technology Studies (STS Center)
Project start date:

Description of the project:

Autonomous vehicles — one of the most promising technologies for the digital economy in Russia and other countries. At the same time, thematic areas and end-to-end digitalization technologies require social expertise that in many cases one lacks. 

In theoretical and methodological terms, this project relates to the interdisciplinary field of social studies of science and technology (Science & Technology Studies, STS). This determines the choice of the object of study and the formulation of the research problem. The object of our study is autonomous vehicles (AV) — the latest technology, the development and implementation of which potentially leads to serious changes in the social, economic and information life of contemporary cities and economy.


The problem that we want to investigate in relation to this object is determined by the following question:

How three key components of this socio-technical innovation are empirically related? (1) The technical content of the designs of specific projects of AV; (2) socio-economic scenarios of their use; (3) and political and legal regimes for regulating the introduction of AV in contemporary cities — and under what conditions will the interaction of these components have positive (i.e. fair, ethical and accountable) consequences for the social life of cities in the world and Russia?


The problem posed includes a number of questions of our project:

1)    Description of the diversity of technological architectures of AV. Although this task is descriptive, it is not trivial. The area of AV is in its infancy and is therefore characterized by a high degree of technological and organizational flexibility and heterogeneity of its agents. Therefore, there is no ready-made framework for a comparative description of projects and analysis of the current state and dynamics of the region. Such a frame needs to be created.

2)    Identification of correspondence between the expectations of various relevant AV stakeholders (people making decisions in the field of transport and city policy, city and transport planners, regulatory authorities, economic agents of various sizes, individual users) and the content of real projects and strategies of AV developers.

3)    Determining the relationship between technical content and socio-economic use cases. How tightly related are technological architectures of AV and potential scenarios for their use? To what extent are future use cases already incorporated into current technological solutions, and to what extent do these solutions give freedom to end users of AV in the application of new technology? What kind of socio-economic usage scenarios (personal cars with exclusive ownership, car sharing, taxi, public transport, freight transportation and logistics) are key for the AV?

4) Articulate the regulatory, ethical and socio-political challenges that AV entail. How the technical content of AV developments is related to these challenges. Are AV challenges substantively different from challenges of other radical innovations? And if so, why? How can social scholar help answer these challenges in order to make AV more responsible, ethical, fair and socially oriented?

In accordance with these subproblems, the project poses a number of specific tasks:

1)    Collect data on how the technical designs of autonomous vehicles, which are developed in Russia and the world, are made. Data collection will be carried out using data collection from open sources (databases of publications in the media, specialized forums and websites of AV developers, reports of consulting companies, social networks) both for Russian developments and in other countries (primarily in the USA, where there a lot of companies who develop AV). Further, with the help of this data, we will be able to create portraits of development projects, find the parameters related to the vehicle on which the development is carried out, the sensors and algorithms used, as well as the features of the company that is engaged in development.

2)    Identify the main trends of making such designs, for example, which of the technical solutions most often correlate with each other, which “blocks” of solutions can be distinguished. These trends will be highlighted both with the help of statistical tools (correlation analysis, regression models), and with the help of dynamics analysis, which would show why certain decisions are being replaced in the development of unmanned vehicles. We believe that trends will vary from microtrends of using a specific sensor to macrotrends of orientation to the operation of the car on the highway or in the city.

3)    Using the methods of social research of technologies (material semiotics, mapping of the controversies, revealing ethics), identify social, ethical, political implications of these trends. This task involves interpretative work based on reading a large number of sources on a topic, reports, foresights, strategic developments, etc. However, unlike innovative research, our task will be rather to isolate implications that do not lie on the surface, but which are embedded in the technology itself.

4) To build more elaborate scenarios of how these implications will affect the city and its development, the everyday life of people and society (especially Russian), in general. We intend to design these scenarios both in the form of diagrams and in the form of scientific texts, as well as in the form of a narrative popular today in the form of a portrait of an “imaginary user” who travels around the city in which these scenarios were realized.


The scientific novelty of this study is that: 1) A full-fledged sociological study of AV as a radical innovation on Russian and foreign material is proposed; 2) A comprehensive sociological analysis of AV will be given, combining machine collection and quantitative analysis of a large array of data from open sources and qualitative analysis and interpretation of these data using contemporary approaches to the analysis of technology (material semiotics, mapping of the controversies); 3) The study offers a definition of holistic strategies for the influence of AV on the city, everyday life and society.

The project is supported by Russian Scientific Foundation (№ 20-78-10106)