anthropology cars innovation

Anthropology and self-driving cars

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What can anthropology contribute to self-driving cars sector? In this article we explain this innovative relation.

Progressively technology is becoming more relevant in contemporary societies, gradually replacing many of the tasks that the human being used to perform or accompanying it in their daily lives.

Technological advances have also been noticed in the automotive sector, improving the way in which we move, and there have also been improvements related to the cost of vehicles and the effects of their uses for the environment.

One of the most important aspects still to be perfected is security, since the effects on it will not be positive until we construct a system that orbits the user and their needs, and the way in which it interacts with the present stimuli while driving (Kumar in Parkes and Franzen 1993).

For this task we need to know two very important things, the first is to establish the needs of the user of the vehicle and second, what should the vehicle know about the driver.


The human being is a nomadic species, and from its beginnings has been in constant movement. It has been a creature adapted to live and move in nature, during the day and at very low speeds, making use of sensors, a central nervous system and muscular properties adapted to such conditions.

While muscle load has been reducing, mental demands like perception and attention have been growing. As a consequence, we have a human being with characteristics of stone age controlling heavy and fast machines in an environment full of artificial signals (Kumar en Parkes and Franzen 1993).

We have recently moved from worrying about building a system of safe roads, withstand the weather and wear, to focus on the problems related to the user of the vehicle, especially the dilemmas related to the information received and the decisions.

Gradually, the importance of user knowledge, what we could call as user experience or user needs, becomes essential in a world where both products and services become increasingly personalized.

At present, private institutions, but also public ones, emphasize the particularities of each subject and the way in which he / she interacts and gives use and meaning to the particular product or service.

Today, we are witnessing an unprecedented phenomenon in the history of humanity: most of the world’s population remains in constant connection and can produce and consume products, services, art, etc., with great ease. Given this scenario, where the consumer has become more dynamic, more plural, more diverse, more demanding, is where it becomes necessary to study the real needs of users and the way in which these requirements can be met.

The cars of the future should be able to provide us with the alternatives that best meet our needs, taking into account not only the driver of the vehicle and its crew but also the other vehicles involved in the traffic as well as the pedestrians, while respects and complies with traffic regulations.

For such a mission we must imagine the act of conduction as a social act.


In the same line of research we find the work done by Erik Vinkhuyzen and Melissa Cefkin during the process of development of Autonomous Vehicles (AV), where the first step was to recognize that driving is not a merely technical action in which only we have to take into account speed, distance, time etc., but inherently such an action becomes part of the social, since drivers relate to each other, with pedestrians and cyclists, within a set of signals and symbols that guide them.

It is precisely in the social implication of driving where anthropologists would have a niche of applicability of their profession, more specifically in the translation of social driving practices into viable algorithms to be able to design these autonomous vehicles. The goal is to get VAs integrated into the driving system in a socially acceptable way (Cefkin and Vinkhuyzen 2016), which means that you have to understand what happens every time a person gets behind the wheel.

The answer is that the act of driving is undeniably social, a mixture of people trying to make their way to their destination, using a variety of modes of transport in such a way that an interaction is inevitable, all this within a regulated circulation system.

What is truly challenging in the elaboration of VAs is to be able to translate the impulsive, random and social behavior of the human being in algorithms that offer the capacity of calculation and decision to these systems of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

When we take the road to our destination, both drivers of vehicles and pedestrians are part of a system regulated by a large number of rules, signs and symbols that regulates us when we move. The challenge is to translate social behavior and mutual agreement into the driving system, aspects which are outside the regulated traffic system.

It is the peculiarities of each instant that escape the calculation.

Many times we make necessary maneuvers although we break the rules of traffic, sometimes we cross when the traffic light is red only because we follow another pedestrian by inertia, sometimes as pedestrians we do not agree with a driver of a vehicle who passes first and we create a situation of insecurity in both.

All these innumerable interactions between pedestrians, drivers of vehicles and cyclists deserve to be studied in order to realize not only a vehicle capable of thinking for itself, but to change the current driving system, make it safer and lighter.

A first step is to recognize that economics and technology are cultural manifestations, reflecting our desires and fetishes, and on this basis we can work for an ethical future in these two areas that meets the real needs of humanity. Technology is the creative freedom of the human being, it is the gift that humanity possesses to forge its own destiny, and therefore deserves the attention, effort and necessary care.

Anthropology, as the main discipline of society and culture, must be a leader in providing both knowledge and techniques of analysis and understanding, in order to reach human progress, in other words, innovation.


Parkes, M. & Franzen, S. (1993) Driving future vehicles. Taylor & Francis Ltd., London.

Vinkhuyzen, E. & Cefkin, M. (2016) Developing Socially Acceptable Autonomous Vehicle. 2016 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceeding, p. 522-534.

Curious anthropologist, innate traveler and enterpriser by necessity. Enthusiast of military anthropology and concerned about the ethics of this collaboration. Deeply interested in the tecnoanthropology /cyborg anthropology and the applicability of our discipline.

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