The 2021 “SocAIty” study: Audi is addressing a social dimension of autonomous driving

  • New study from &Audi Initiative provides expert insights and opinions on legal, ethical, and political questions about autonomous driving
  • Experts support holistic debate about future technology
  • Audi CEO Duesmann: “Autonomous driving can help make traffic safer and mobility more inclusive.”

From the appropriate legal framework to ethical questions to digital responsibility: the 2021 “SocAIty” study from the &Audi Initiative examines the overall societal dimension of autonomous driving. In the process, leading experts from Europe, the U.S., and Asia comment from their various specialized perspectives and thereby initiate an ongoing discourse on the mobility of the future.

“After electromobility, the next, clearly more radical change is the transition to more intelligent and, ultimately, autonomous vehicles,” says Markus Duesmann, CEO of AUDI AG. “For us, autonomous driving is a key technology that can help make traffic safer and mobility more comfortable and inclusive.” With the Volkswagen Group’s software company CARIAD, AUDI AG is driving the introduction of that technology forward in the second half of this decade at full speed.

Both the technological maturity of the driving systems and the social dimension are very important for autonomous driving to gain broad acceptance: people’s attitudes are critical for new technologies like autonomous driving to catch on. Nineteen internal and external scientific, policy, and economic experts discussed central issues concerning the future of autonomous driving; the results have now been published by the &Audi Initiative in the roughly 70-page “SocAIty” study.

An image of the future in 2030: The mobility landscape is becoming more diverse, compartmentalized, and inclusive
The study addresses three focal points: the chapter “Law and progress” examines , among other things, current questions about liability on a global level, while “Relationships of trust between human and machine” looks at the ethical dimension of autonomous driving, and “Networked security” addresses the relevant data protection and security aspects.

“All in all, the result is an image of a mobility landscape that will look different in 2030 from what it looks like today, but will manage without science fiction,” says Saskia Lexen, project manager for the &Audi Initiative at AUDI AG. “So Audi wants to establish appropriate expectations for the possibilities and limits of technology in society and to create trust.”

One central insight of the study is that the mobility landscape in 2030 will be more diverse and compartmentalized and will produce more mobility solutions. Additionally, diversity of forms of micromobility will increase, particularly in cities. Demand will also increasingly be determined by the person’s location. Similar needs increasingly prevail in large cities: places like New York, London, and Shanghai have comparable basic conditions and needs with respect to mobility, flexibility, and customer expectations. Most of the experts see the U.S. as a driving force behind the technology of autonomous driving. Not all new technologies will necessarily be primarily developed there, but they will be put on the road with the help of capital and expertise.

China is seen as a trailblazer in scaling and widespread technology penetration. The reasons for this include a determined expansion of infrastructure and a high degree of social appreciation for new technologies. In the experts’ opinion, Germany and Europe will primarily be innovation sites for vehicle technologies and high-volume production, in addition to playing an important role as sales markets in ten years. As a result, it is these experts’ opinion that European consumer rights and data protection regulations will likely impact global conditions and product standards for the entire industry.

Acceptance largely depends on personal experience
In 2030, mobility will be heavily characterized by a new kind of mixed traffic, in which autonomous vehicles will encounter vehicles driven by people. Road users will gradually adapt and will have to learn new rules. The prognosis: for this significant cultural shift, people will need time to establish a good trusting relationship with autonomous driving. “Only the improvements we hope to see in comfort, safety and availability will sufficiently justify acceptance and confidence in the new technology”, says Hiltrud Werner, Member of the Board of Management responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs, Volkswagen AG.

Apart from the potential for more efficient and therefore more ecologically sustainable traffic, networked and data-driven mobility concepts can also have an enormous social impact. That includes new services that are oriented to human needs and, ideally, lead to a new form of more inclusive and more social mobility. “It is also about better access to mobility. Because mobility is the key in getting access to jobs, medical care, to clean food and so forth”, adds expert Huei Peng, Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Director of Mcity, University of Michigan.

Accident and risk avoidance, not artificial thought experiments
“Who do we prioritize avoiding? If this is how we keep setting the agenda, we’re not going to get very far”, points out Christoph Lütge, Director of the Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence at the Technical University of Munich. Contending with dilemmas in accident situations is inevitable for understanding the ethical aspects of autonomous driving. However, the discussion is often emotional and, from the perspective of some experts, ideologized based on safety-related and ethical considerations.

For that reason, the experts agree that the next important step consists of clearly defining ethical foundations based on realistic situations and taking up actual challenges and questions that companies and legislators have to contend with on a global scale. 

Source: Audi,

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