Present tensions in an autonomous future: An ethnographic study of a shared autonomous vehicle pilot in small-town Sweden

Type de publication:

Conference Paper


Gerpisa colloquium, Detroit (2022)




This paper traces ethnographically what happens when a Shared Autonomous Vehicle (SAV) is introduced into the urban traffic ecosystem of a small coastal Swedish city. Challenging linear and universal understandings of automation a series of breakdowns during this pilot prompt us to analyse the concrete implications of introducing an SAV into a specific socio-material setting. By taking into account the complexity of the locally situated context and the diversity of human and non-human actors involved, we scrutinize assumptions that automation is a key beneficial driver to improving urban mobility and that its implementation relies on developing stakeholder trust and thereby adoption of the technology.

In fact, projects researching SAVs as part of MaaS often operate under the combined underlying assumptions 1) that SAVs are a universalistic solution to further sustainable mobilities (Kun, Boll, and Schmidt 2016; Moorthy et al. 2017; Shaheen and Chan 2016; Ohnemus and Perl 2016), 2) that a lack of trust in automation technologies is a central limitation to user adoption of SAVs (Lee and Lee 2020) and 3) that bringing potential users into contact with them in selected contexts should therefore contribute to promoting support and implementation. Consequently, 4) demonstrators and experiments of SAVs tend rely on the participation of a predefined set of stakeholders.  In addition, 5) such initiatives are expected to produce scenarios of future mobility to facilitate the planning and implementation of “shared” and automated mobility services.

By using an ethnographic methodology and drawing on the notion of material agency, we trace the socio-material effects produced through this event and thereby point to infrastructural tension (Harvey and Knox 2012) between anticipated automated futures and the complex present. This allows us to make original observations about the place of SAVs in visions of future mobility.


The paper follows the experimental introduction of an SAV into a confined coastal setting at the periphery of a small town on the West coast of Sweden. As part of an international multi-stakeholder project that involves several research institutions, and framed as a participatory public engagement initiative, the two-week pilot was aimed at drawing attention to the local authorities’ sustainable mobility initiatives and gathering data on practices and perceptions regarding mobility and automation. Set during a local summer event along a 2 km stretch of road during along the coastline, the SAV shared the road with multiple other users including cars and cyclists. The specific setting offers the opportunity to analyze contradictions between initial ambitions and situated conditions of SAV experiments but also to examine application of small-scale automated mobility solutions outside of dense urban environments. We conducted video and audio recorded observations both inside and around the vehicle in operation, as well as on-site and digital semi-structured follow-up interviews with participants. These were contextualized with document analysis and in-depth interviews with members of the initial SAV project.


The implantation of the pilot was met with local resistance due to anticipated adverse effect on neighbourhood car circulation. During its run-time, the SAV faced frequent breakdowns and continuous frictions in its interaction with other human and non-human agents in its environments, ultimately breaking down entirely before the end of the planned experiment. 

These multiple actors and frictions in the situated local use context question the universal and seamless applicability of shared automated mobility options and brought to the fore a series of commonly unidentified stakeholders. The perceived isolated and recreational character of the experiment moreover limited the “stakes” for its participants and while contact materialised the concept of automation, the experience was heavily mediated through the locally situated material frictions and the continuously solicited intervention of the human operator.

While the event did offer insight into public perceptions of future mobility and automation, it proved limited in its capacity to engage citizens. Most interviewees appeared to struggle to identify connections and relevance of automation with regards to their own mobility needs, practices and spaces. In other words, while the pilot raised some interest, we did not see a clear indication that people were ready to adopt this in their daily life. The limited functionality of the vehicle and the complexity of its implementation resulted in a manifest disenchantment of participants with the prospects of automation.


The study outlines the complex situated nature of the implementation of automated vehicle systems and the multi-layered nature of their relevant mobility environments. Our findings challenge some normative assumptions about participant or stakeholder agency including the foundations of stakeholder legitimacy on which such initiatives tend to rest. We suggest this points to the value of in-depth ethnographic research to unpack the disconnect between visions of an autonomous future and the convoluted present. Such studies encourage a non-linear and bottom-up approach to the application, acceptance, and adoption of AVs. Finally, the study demonstrated the inherent heuristic value of failure and friction in the application of automated technologies in complex situated material settings. It proposes to reorient research to the question of what an AV does as an actor in a complex system rather than focusing on which problems can be solved based on emerging technological potential.




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