Melissa Cefkin

The Social Lives of Robots on Roads: Designing Autonomous Vehicle Behavior


Movement is a defining element of human existence. Beyond our characteristic bi-pedalism, people’s behavior while in motion shapes our social relations and sense of the world.  So what happens when robots, such as autonomous vehicles, move amongst us as well? 

In my research I examine how people interact with and experience autonomous vehicles on the road. Specifically, I focus on people’s vehicular interactions in their roles as other drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, bus operators, street cleaners and more from a socio-cultural perspective. Using such methods as naturalistic field study, experiments, and simulation, I explore questions such as how people make their actions legible to others and how normative expectations for appropriate behavior differ across time and place. Working with computer modelers, engineers and designers I’ve informed the design of autonomous vehicle behavior towards the goal of helping other road users know how to interact safely and effectively with vehicles being driven without a human in the drivers’ seat. In this talk I’ll speak to some of the opportunities and challenges present in designing for socially acceptable autonomous vehicle behavior.

Melissa Cefkin


Melissa Cefkin is a practicing anthropologist who has worked at the crossroads of technology, business and mobility. She has helped develop autonomous vehicle behavior and design vehicle features at Waymo, where she worked as a User Experience Researcher, and at Nissan where she initiated and led the Human Systems Lab. Prior to her focus on autonomous vehicles she led and worked as a behavioral and socio-cultural researcher and manager at IBM and Sapient after starting out her post-PhD professional life at the not-for-profit, the Institute for Research on Learning. Melissa received her PhD at Rice University, and has served on the Board of Directors for the Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference (EPIC). She has been a frequent presenter at conferences internationally, served on numerous editorial boards and on a committee for the national Academies of Science, and is a Fulbright award grantee. She is the editor of Ethnography and the Corporate Encounter (Berghahn Books 2009) and numerous other publications.