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The Societal Impacts of Self-Driving Technology

Exit Interview with Erik Almlöf

Erik Almlöf
Erik Almlöf.
Published May 31, 2024

Erik Almlöf has spent the last five years exploring the societal impacts of introducing self-driving technology. His research sheds light on the complexities of integrating autonomous vehicles into our daily lives – both benefits and adverse effects. There is an opportunity to learn more about Erik's findings and experiences when he defends his doctoral thesis on June 13th.

Erik Almlöf will soon defend his doctoral thesis. Here he shares some thoughts on his own findings and the research on self-driving vehicles in general.

What is the focus of your research and what are your most interesting findings? 

”Over the past five years, I have delved into the societal impact of introducing self-driving technology, with a particular emphasis on mobility for people. I would say the most significant conclusions from my research are that while self-driving vehicles offer numerous benefits, they also come with adverse effects. Most prominently, an increase in motorized travel at the expense of walking and cycling would be detrimental to public health. Also, children could be exposed to more car traffic.”

Are there topics related to your work that could be further researched or developed?

”One aspect that surprised me late in my research process was the lack of research into current self-driving vehicle trials. For example, I did a large study on the Barkarby bus trial, one of the longest-running experiments in the world, and revealed a lot of challenges beyond the commonly discussed technical aspects. A lot of the issues are very practical and it is obvious that they would require solutions beyond the vehicle technology. But I have found almost no research into other trials, such as those conducted by tech companies in Arizona and California. So there's a significant opportunity for further exploration in this area to uncover valuable insights for the future of self-driving technology. ”

Why do you think there has been such a gap in studying these trials, especially considering their significance in shaping the future of transportation?

”It seems like most researchers focus on developing new algorithms instead. I think the focus on finding technological fixes for self-driving technology is over-emphasized compared to examining its societal implications. I advocate for a shift towards research focused on overarching goals like sustainability, rather than solely on technological advancements. ”

How was your experience at ITRL? Has the interdisciplinary collaboration led to a breakthrough or enriched your perspective on your research topic?

”ITRL is a really cool place! While it is not always quiet and easy to focus, it is hard to find many workplaces where the disturbances are drones being tested in the next room, a little car running around the office being remotely controlled over wireless networks, or air bursts from a space lab. A very nice thing is how easy it is to ask questions on a wide range of topics, often very technical. I could easily engage in a deep discussion on a potential business model for transport electrification or simply go to the next desk and ask a question like, 'Is 10 ms lag for remotely controlling a vehicle good or bad?' and get the answer that, yes, it is good, and that everything under 70 ms is usually not noticeable. That is certainly valuable when doing your research.”

”So, I believe ITRL really succeeds in the ‘I’ part of the name – Integrated. Not only integrating technology with society but also integrating different research fields and serving as a meeting point for people from the industry, governmental organizations, and academia. I have used this integration to my advantage in several of my papers, where it was simple to address questions to, e.g., policymakers who were present at ITRL in meetings.”

Thesis Summary

Erik´s thesis can be divided into four parts:

  • An exploration of existing research on self-driving vehicles, which showed that the potential effects are sometime exaggerated. 
  • An overview of the requirements that self-driving vehicles would need, such as improved connectivity and pre-rendered 3D maps, as well as practical aspects like how trips services would be organized and how travelers would need to adjust their behaviors.
  • An analyss of the impacts of self-driving technology on factors like CO2 emissions and overall accessibility.
  • A study with policymakers to gather insights on their perspectives and strategies for addressing sustainability-related challenges connected to self-driving vehicles.

Erik defends his thesis on June 13:
Beyond Technology – Doctoral thesis defence