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The technology for self-driving cars is developing fast and will in the near future be used on our roads. But how do people perceive this? And what are the expectations of the technology? Social scientists from Halmstad University will now, in collaboration with Volvo Personvagnar, implement the first applied etnographic research project on self-driving cars.

Vinnova has decided to fund a grant of SEK 6.1 million for the project Human Expectation and Experience of Autonomous Driving (HEAD) that is lead by the DUX (Digital User Experience) Development Center at Volvo Cars. The project is an interdisciplinary study that connects field operational testing, design ethnography and experimental testing, where the ethnographic part will be conducted together with social scientists at Halmstad University. The project lasts between July 1, 2016, and June 30, 2018.

Sweden’s first ethnographic study of AD cars

Halmstad University has teamed up with Volvo Cars to undertake Sweden’s first ethnographic study of Autonomous Driving (AD) cars. The collaboration will develop innovative design ethnography research and create new understandings of how AD cars are perceived, experienced and used, both in the present and as part of our imagined futures.

– During the last two years we have had ongoing discussions and workshops with the Digital User Experience team at Volvo Cars, and I am very happy that these joint ideas can now be realised through the funding from Vinnova. I am also very excited about the interdisciplinary work of this project around the questions raised by the development of automatised driving technologies and their implications not only on a technological level, but also in a wider social and societal context. I think this integrated approach is one of the projects greatest strengths, says Vaike Fors, project leader for the part of the project that will be run by Halmstad University.

“A pivotal moment”

– This is a pivotal moment in the design of Autonomous Driving cars. Technological developments have now made it possible for us to not only imagine our AD futures but to research what happens when people take AD cars out on the roads, says Sarah Pink, who will lead the ethnographic research design.

Working across disciplines with designers and engineers at Volvo Cars in the HEAD project is particularly exciting. We have had many really inspiring discussions with our colleagues at Volvo Cars already and our continued dialogues with them will be key to this project as it progresses. Now, with the Vinnova funding we will really be able to contribute to shaping the future of AD cars as well as generating new knowledge about their place in our digital futures and what they mean for everyday life and societal change.


SCACA has an active agenda to develop and promote ethnographic research approaches that have applied impact in the world, while maintaining a strong dialogue with theoretical scholarship. This project builds on SCACA’s recent successes in this field, including its 2016 Ethnography and its Audiences symposium, the forthcoming edited book Theoretical Scholarship and Applied Practice (2017), RJ foundation funded Sensing, Shaping Sharing project, and SCACA’s international collaboration with the Digital Ethnography Research Centre at RMIT.

Facts HEAD project

Significant advances in technology have made autonomous driving (AD) of vehicles a practical reality, and AD has a number of potential values to society. The core objective of this project is to define a multidisciplinary research model that can identify user expectations and experiences of AD cars. Volvo Cars will start testing AD cars in public traffic with actual users during 2017. However, little is known about user expectations and experience relating to safety in AD, and published studies describing customer prerequisites are remarkably few. This project will address this gap in knowledge through an innovative interdisciplinary study that connects field operational testing design ethnography and experimental testing.

The outcomes from the project will be continuously fed into research and development of autonomous cars and will in turn contribute to the development of satisfactory autonomous cars. The research will be based on studies done with potential customers both in everyday and experimental settings. The project will result in a tailored design ethnographic and experimental interdisciplinary research model that combines academic research, interaction design and engineering and understandings of people’s expectations and experiences of AD.

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