Autonomous vehicles as agents of social control

I am currently researching and writing about autonomous vehicles for an industry panel. After going through the panel questions and putting together the current state of research on the topic, I started to wonder what a classical sociological question would be. At some point, I’ll post up the questions and my responses, however while in the shower, it finally came to me. The question of social control. So here is my rant.

The question of who can use AVs, where they can go and the experience they can have on the way comes down to the relationship between personalized user experiences, and data, and what this affords in terms of surveillance and activity regulation. When data is produced and monitored at the level of the individual, their digital traces provide substantial information about what they do, where they do it and who they do it with. This becomes more the case for people using autonomous vehicles and MAAS systems and will likely result in forms of social sorting that reinforce existing social inequalities.

When one considers how people who have offended through drunk driving have breathalysers installed in their vehicles, an ignition interlock, that affects whether the car will start or not, we can start to understand how autonomous vehicles may be used as a form of social control.

In addition to this, as a users’ location is tracked through the mapping functions of the vehicle and platform associated with the transit arc, the location of people in relation to a crime or protest may be determined through the time and location of the vehicles or transit arcs of people present in the area. This will provide an even more identifiable map of mobile people than is currently possible. Police have used equivalents in terms of mapping social media content production related to social protests as a way to identify people and initiate crowd control practices. In this way, both criminal activity and social activism may be mapped in a more granular and geo-located way.

The activities associated with the travel arc destinations of users, in-vehicle behaviours and or custom purpose of the AVs utilized for the travel arc will also provide substantial information and constraint possibilities at an individual level. For example, where someone has a restraining order taken out on them, it would be possible for the system intelligence that AVs draw on to indicate travel limits associated with that individual and enforce them in the routes available to these individuals. These limits may become mobile as the person who filed the restraining order moves through a MAAS system.

There are both positive, socially enabling implications for this kind of deeply tracked mobility, as much as there are negative implications. People at the scene of or travelling towards a natural disaster, such as the recent fires in Australia, or crazed gunman may be diverted around or away from the location. Ambulance vehicles could more naturally and efficiently move through a city at times of medical crisis without relying on drivers to give way.

In a very contemporary example, people who have been ordered to self-isolate due to a virus outbreak, which they have been identified as carrying, could have their mobility heavily regulated for public health safety. This puts the interests of public health before the concerns of the individual, who may be lonely, afraid and seeking alternative or non sanctioned forms of health care and social support.

This kind of social control over mobility may also affect those who can afford it the least. For example, those who have defaulted on their payments within a MAAS system, or who were incorrectly identified as holding a debt, will lose all capacity for mobility across all forms of transportation. The “social credit score” of the user may be more than just a dating rating, but become a cross referenced record of past behaviours and practices that will, without doubt, shape their future eligibility for all kinds of services. This data record is indelible and will result in forms of social sorting that privilege some and disadvantage others.


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