Driving in Semi-autonomous Vehicles: Drivers’ Activities and Conceptualization when the Car (almost) Drives Itself

Driving in Semi-autonomous Vehicles: Drivers’ Activities and Conceptualization when the Car (almost) Drives Itself


Thomas Bjørner, Aalborg Univeristy


This study will focus on drivers’ activities when driving and using semi-autonomous driving technologies. Further by inspiration from computer gaming theory a new approach for how drivers conceptualize driving in autonomous vehicles.


Aim and background
Car companies are putting much focus on both short-term and long-term development for autonomous vehicles, and the advantages are expected to be increased road safety (e.g., fewer traffic collisions), decreased fuel consumption, reduced traffic congestion and a more pleasant journey. The mass produced full self-driving automation is not there yet, but there are lots of semi-autonomous driving technologies, which have a whole range of functions going from less advanced to very advanced systems. Some of the less advances systems includes assisting drivers in parking their vehicle (Intelligent Parking Assistant System, IPAS), which was implemented in some cars already back in 2003. The complexity increases significantly when the actually driving is going to be assisted. The first steps of more advanced semi-autonomous driving have already been taken by the so called advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), such as stop-and-go devices, traffic jam assistant, lane keeping systems (LKS), keeping distance, following the relevant speed limits or adaptive cruise control (ACC), and other self-driving technologies.

Previous studies have put much focus on technology acceptance toward autonomous vehicles (Payre et al., 2013) and some of the perceived disadvantages and user perspectives regarding the “loss of control” in the semi-autonomous vehicles (Stanton et al, 2001). But there are still lots of uncovered elements within the semi-autonomous driving, as the driver still has to survey the drive but have increased opportunities to make shifts in different activities meanwhile “driving”.
The act of car driving is not just about getting from point A to point B, as it also contains very complex conceptualized issues full of meaning. This is not new knowledge, but both driving and the conceptualization of driving might change and be understood in new ways with the emergence of autonomous vehicles. The aim behind this project is to explore:
“What are the drivers doing and how do they conceptualize the drive and themselves when advanced semi-autonomous driving systems are in use?
The focus on “drivers doing” is due to the increased possibilities making non-driving activities as the car takes over some of the driver’s control. A potential risk is that these new technologies will make drivers fall asleep, doing nothing, reading the newspaper or increased use of the range of miniaturized electronic devices and ubiquitous technologies (mobile phones, tablets, mp3 players, laptops, wearable computers). There has been some focus on the disadvantages and distractive elements these new ubiquitous technologies have when driving (Holland and Rathod, 2013; McKeever et al., 2013; Zhao et al., 2013), but in an applied approach within semi-autonomous driving. In the discourse some companies are conscious about this, and e.g. Audi do not call their technologies for ‘autonomous driving’ but ‘piloted driving’.
The conceptualization of driving is a very complex phenomenon, but scholars tend to link driving within an economic conceptualization of time, which to a high extent led driving time to be viewed as a commodity (e.g., spent, wasted, saved time), as opposed to an experience or lifestyle. Very few scholars have linked the commodity and experience/lifestyle on a theoretical level, but almost none have made the link based on empirical data. The autonomous vehicle can be said to be at the core of the third age of the transport evolution (Lyons and Urry, 2005), in which an understanding of our life needs determines and influences how the transport system is best used to support those needs. For how drivers conceptualize driving in semi-autonomous vehicles this study will try to outline a new approach by applying theories from computer gaming (Csíkszentmihályi, 1991; O’Brien and Toms, 2008; Schønau-Fog and Bjørner, 2012) and transfer and redevelop these into a framework for an ethnographic approach.

The study is based on a mobile ethnographic approach (Bjørner, 2015; Shelly and Urry, 2006) with a combination of both observations and interviews. The sample of drivers is based on purposive sampling, and selected by Volvo Cars. The observation aim is observations of drivers, which use advanced semi-autonomous driving. The observations are based on ‘real-life environment’ with real life driving acts recorded by a GoPro cam. The focus is on what the driver is doing when use of advanced semi-autonomous driving. The interviews is based on a drive-along method, to identify issues within “trust” (do you trust the technology, the conceptualization of “driving a car” (do you still ‘drive’ – are you still ‘the driver’) and “time use” (e.g. what is the driver doing, when you do not drive yourself).


Association for European Transport