a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Driving for Values

Smart cities are full of sensors and collect large amounts of data. One reason for doing so is to get real-time information about traffic flows. A next step is to steer the traffic in a way that contributes to the realisation of values such as safety and sustainability. Think of steering cars around schools to improve the safety of children, or of keeping certain areas car-free to improve air quality. Is it legitimate for cities to nudge their citizens to make moral choices when participating in traffic? Would a system that limits a person’s options for the sake of improving quality of life in the city come at the cost of restricting that person’s autonomy? In a transdisciplinary research project, we (i.e., members of the ESDiT programme and the Responsible Sensing Lab) explored how a navigation app that suggests routes based on shared values, would affect users’ experiences of autonomy. We did so by letting people try out speculative prototypes of such an app on a mobile phone and ask them questions about how they experienced different features of the app. During several interviews and a focus group, we gained insights about the conditions under which people find such an app acceptable and about the features that increase or decrease their feeling of autonomy.

In this study, we define autonomy as involving two central elements: the availability of options from which one is free to choose and “a person’s capacity to judge, decide, and act on the basis of her own attitudes and reasoning”. Interestingly, though participants mainly associated the first element with the word autonomy, their evaluation of the different system features showed that the second element was of great importance to them. We designed six different versions of the app, which each had a different combination of system features. All of those features relate in some way to autonomy. For instance, some app versions enable the user to indicate how much weight they want to give to a selection of four values (safety, sustainability, liveability, and economic flourishing). The app then takes their value preferences into account when calculating possible routes. Other app versions do not have that feature, but, for instance, provide the user with more options. Furthermore, while some app versions indicate that the list of values has been created bottom-up by citizens, others tell the user that this has been done by the city council. During our interviews, each participant tested and compared two versions of the app.

As we are still in the phase of analysing and interpreting the collected data, I will just share some preliminary insights. We found that people generally appreciated the idea of such an app. They were sympathetic to the idea that by adjusting their driving behaviour when driving in the city, they could contribute to better living conditions in the city. At the same time, most participants seemed unwilling, at least initially, to take a longer route for that, especially in situations where they needed to be somewhere at a certain time. In some of the system versions, drivers can choose between two routes, both of which contribute to the realisations of the values. They do not get the fastest route as a third option. Is this restriction of options infringing on the drivers’ capacity to make autonomous choices? We found that, though participants generally preferred to have also the option of the fastest route, they valued the fact that the system provided them with options that were in line with what they care about. They appreciated it if the system showed to them how the suggested routes were linked to values they endorsed and the possibility to set their own value preferences. We interpret their reactions to these features as positive in virtue of them being experienced as autonomy-enhancing.

There were also interesting differences among participants. While some of them preferred versions of the app that enable them to set their own value preferences, others preferred not be bothered by that and rely on the choices made by the system. Also, while some participants distrusted the city council, others didn’t want to let citizens create the list of values, as they suspected them to decide in their personal interest, which might go against the common interest. We aim at publishing our results once we have completed the thematic analysis of our data.

I am an Assistant Professor in Philosophy at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. Previously I have held research and teaching positions at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in Venice, Maastricht University, Utrecht University and Eindhoven University of Technology. I hold a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence. My husband and I live in Baarn, a village in the province of Utrecht, together with our two daughters Philine and Romy.

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