What are driverless transport systems ‘driving’ us towards? Sleep in the age of autonomous vehicles

There appears to be a growing cultural expectation that the development and uptake of driverless vehicle technologies will significantly transform many aspects of how people live their lives. Many social commentators, governments, and companies are envisioning—and, in some cases, helping to bring about—a future where motor vehicles no longer need to be driven by human beings. When this reality eventuates, some believe that car cabins will be configured differently than they are currently. As one contributing writer to the New York Times puts it, ‘When cars are fully autonomous, how we sit, inform and entertain ourselves will be up for grabs.'[1]

Relatedly, the arrival of driverless cars is also thought to have implications for how sleep is socially practiced and organized. There seems to be an emerging discourse which suggests that driverless cars will increase people’s capacity to sleep while they are in transit. The noted inventor and business magnate, Elon Musk, is not alone in envisioning a future where people will have the option of falling asleep whenever they step into a vehicle.[2]Other voices in the technological world have even gone so far as to speculate that this aspect of driverless has the potential to radically transform the hotel industry. An article recently published in Forbes magazine has warned hotels to take seriously the ‘sleeping car threat’.[3]People may decide to forgo staying in some kinds of hotels when cars become fully automated because sleeping in cars on the way to a destination may save travelers time and money.

What is ‘driving’ such an expectation of sleep in driverless vehicles? The answer to this question is a very complex one, but a good place to start is the culture of social acceleration, which is present in many modern contexts.

Social acceleration, which roughly refers to the speeding up of social life, has been the object of much sociological research in recent decades.[4]One of the most sophisticated accounts of social acceleration can be found in the work of Hartmut Rosa.[5]Rosa posits that social acceleration not only involves the ever shortening of time it takes for tasks to reach completion (such as in the case of Moore’s Law). It also involves an increasing reduction in the amount of ‘free time’ that people have access to. This aspect of social acceleration can be intensified through one of two ways: either through the reduction in the amount of time that is taken to transition between tasks or through the phenomenon of multi-tasking, which can be used to increase the overall number of activities that people are able to engage in, commonly to improve productivity in the workplace.

It stands to reason that making car cabins more conducive to sleep is in some measure informed by this latter aspect of social acceleration, which tries to increase the amount of temporal density there is in people’s lives. Partially embedded in the idea that people will want to sleep in autonomous vehicles is the assumption that people will do so to increase their capacity to be productive. Sleeping whilst in transit can be seen to increase the utility of sleep, which is regarded by some to be a wasted, albeit unavoidable, part of the day.

Why this is important for us to consider is because it gives us a better understanding of the futures that driverless vehicle systems are pushing us towards. These futures are not value-neutral, nor are they always explicit or equitable.[6]Some of the technological features of driverless vehicles, such as those increasing people’s capacity to sleep while they are travelling, may be used to help us lead busier lives, in the pursuit of increased productivity levels and greater profits. But we should stand back and critically evaluate whether or not this is what we desire out of the system of automated transport that is currently under development. Members of the Australian research team[7]that I belong to and I are part of a growing number of persons who believe more debate, research, and reflection is needed about the social drivers and consequences of driverless modes of travel. We are guided by the notion that driverless technologies do not exist in a social vacuum. Their creation, contestation, and adoption are all influenced by the cultures and social divisions that surround and permeate them.

Thus, when it comes to the matter of sleep in driverless vehicles, we do not believe this potential practice will necessarily lead to negative social outcomes. We can indeed envision a future where the ability to sleep in an automobile can be a positive one. Sleeping in automated vehicles can be used to satisfy the growing demands on our time made by the system of hyper-capitalism. Or, alternatively, it can be used to help us live more leisurely and comfortable lifestyles. The choice is collectively ours to make. But this will involve more than re-configuring the technologies themselves. Reflecting on the social implications of driverless technologies invites us to think about the values we hold as persons, communities, and societies. Instead of focusing on how driverless technologies will transform the world as we know it, we should also consider what world these technologies are coming into and emerging out of.

photo Eric L Hsu


Dr Eric L. Hsu is a Lecturer in Sociology at the School of Creative Industries at the University of South Australia, where he also serves as Research Director of the Hawke EU Centre’s research platform on ‘Industry 4.0, Robotics, and Artificial Intelligence’. Dr Hsu holds expertise in the sociology of sleep, the sociology of time, the social analysis of automation and robotics, and the social theory of disasters. In addition to co-editing The Consequences of Global Disasters (Routledge, 2016) with Anthony Elliott, he is editor most recently of Sleep: Critical Concepts in Sociology (Routledge, 2017). An article of his appearing in the flagship journal of the British Sociological Association has been shortlisted for the SAGE Prize for Innovation and Excellence. More information about his work can be found on his website: www.ericlhsu.com.