When someone says ‘driverless car’, do you think of a far-off future in which autonomous vehicles hurtle along highways while families lounge inside, enjoying leisure activities or even sleeping through the journey? This vision may not be completely realised in the immediate future – but technologies that support an automated driving experience are certainly on their way, bringing with them a whole bunch of legal and ethical quandaries.
The times they are a-changin’
Increasingly, people in the know are claiming that driverless vehicles are inevitable, rather than just a fantasy for tech nuts and futurists. Will we finally realise something like this prediction from 1957 where cars are like travelling couches? The answer is probably coming sooner than you think, with philanthropist and innovator Elon Musk claiming a fully-automated Tesla will be available by 2018, and he’s not the only one driving the change.
There are a number of questions posed by these new technologies. For example: what would a driverless car do if faced with a dog in the road and no safe way to avoid it? If two driverless cars collide, who is responsible for the accident? And are these mathematical and algorithmic questions, or human ones that are subject to ethical conundrums?
Fast fact: In March 2015, Delphi Automotive modified an Audi SUV and programmed it to drive from San Francisco to New York. It took 9 days, and was driverless for 99% of the trip.
Who is playing the field?
Fast Company recently released a summary of the companies involved in the production of driverless cars. Here are the front runners:
- Google. Many of us would have heard about the Google driverless car; their vehicles started testing in 2006 and are now a common sight in Silicon Valley. Google are concentrating on developing software that will allow cars to drive faster and more smoothly than they can with a human driver, rather than working on mass producing driverless cars for the consumer market. The present cost of the cars is prohibitive.
- Delphi focuses on developing affordable driverless car systems. Producing cost-effective systems means that a saleable product is closer on the horizon. In 2015, Delphi’s team of engineers, and their automated driving car called the Roadrunner completed a nearly 5471Kms (3,400 miles) journey, spanning the southern United States. The Roadrunner successfully travelled from San Francisco to New York City using cameras, laser range-finders, clever programming tools and a monitoring team.
- Covisint is a Detroit-based company that focuses on communication and collaboration, and their tech developments will allow driverless cars to securely communicate with traffic lights and emergency vehicles.
- Codha Wireless designs hardware and software – V2X tech – that will allow cars to form networks. Autonomous vehicles need reliable sensors to be functional, and the V2X wireless sensor system allows vehicles to share data with other vehicles around them, making autonomous driving safer.
- Mobileye develops tech that seeks to warn cars of imminent danger, with headway monitoring and speed limit indications. Their traffic-accident-decreasing technology is (reportedly) extremely cost-effective.
- Nvidia is an American company that adds another feature to the chipsets that are advancing driverless technology in cars – they want to produce tech that can be upgraded. Imagine being able to increase the safety features of your car periodically. This company wants to make that possibility a reality.
These technologies promise to provide us with a future of safer driving, like the seatbelt did in the 1970s. But are we really ready for cars to be on the road that potentially do not make (or are unable to make) human-like decisions? Many argue we need to solve complex ethical dilemmas before we can move forward.
Driverless cars: An ethical nightmare?
Researchers Jean-François Bonnefon, Azim Shariff, Iyad Rahwan claim that to make real progress towards driverless cars being a help and not a hindrance, there are many complexities to consider. Yes, these technologies promise to reduce traffic accidents, and the researchers accept this premise, but pose the question: how do we trust software to know the correct answer when confronted with an ethical dilemma? For example, how will this software respond to a lesser-of-two-evils scenario, like choosing between running over a pedestrian or swerving and potentially hurting the passenger in the car?
Fast fact: The Latin phrase nullum crimen sine lege means “no crime without law”, which is a foundation of the American legal system. If no appropriate legislation exists to prevent it, driverless cars can be tested and used.
Their research paper argues that the manufacturers (and later the legal regulators) have three incompatible problems to solve: the decisions made by the software have to be consistent, they need to avoid public outrage (after all, we can forgive a grieving human that made a mistake – but may be less so to a machine and its manufacturers), and how to solve these problems without putting off consumers.
There are many factors to consider, such as legal ramifications of driverless incidents and whether or not self-sacrifice is essential. Would you buy an SUV programmed to sacrifice you or a loved one in favour of a group of school children crossing before the green light? Will your vehicle advocate for your protection over a “greater good” principle, which will analyse the best way to reduce potential harms for all parties?
In the end, it will all be about how we feel about control. Lots of us will be in car accidents, but not many of us consider how we will react in one as a factor when we buy a car. Yes, we check safety features, but we don’t consider complex ethical dilemmas in a car dealership. Driverless cars and their lack of control force us to do this.
The researchers hope that these problems can be solved through consultations with psychologists and legal authorities, but this kind of wrangling could take decades to smooth out.
Experts weigh in on driverless car ethics
Dr. Matthew Beard from ethics.org.au has pondered the ethics and potential dilemmas of this technology. He posits that a whole range of difficult problems and potential solutions arise from the advance of driverless vehicles, but the most important ones to consider revolve around the tolerance of “ethical” programming that benefits many at the expense of the individual.
He asks us to consider: “Would you be comfortable getting in a driverless car knowing that in certain situations it might be programmed to choose a course of action that would kill you?”
Dr Beard digs down into those philosophical questions that are usually the purview of academics, but will ultimately spill into the community – which he argues is the best thing about the scenario.
“The best thing about the prospect of autonomous cars is that it is forcing us – as a community – to discuss topics that have long been limited to university philosophy classes: is there a difference between killing and letting die? What defines a morally good act – intentions or consequences? How do we determine moral responsibility?”
In philosophy, there are a number of valid arguments, just as there are in any complex area of life such as economics, community values, parenting, war or even relationships. The difference is, we will not only be driven by technology (literally), but by legislation, which can only be informed by argument, which is informed by academic and community views. It’s a complex trickle-up effect.
A whole new world
If we solve all these problems and driverless cars and automated driver technology become the norm, what will the world look like? There are many possibilities. Maybe, as we have tech that makes parking easier, we will have smaller parking spots. Perhaps councils will be able to squeeze more cars into limited space, and battling for a spot will decrease.
If cars are really able to effectively communicate with each other and humans are no longer the ones trusted to give way correctly, road signs and traffic lights might disappear from our roads. Imagine the night lit up only by street lights in one colour for as far as the eye can see. Will speeding tickets be something that our grandchildren never receive? Will they be dropped off at school by a machine? And speaking of the next generation, when will driving tests and getting your license cease to be a rite of passage?
This all leaves us with a final conundrum: is the money we pour into new car technology also working on ways to ensure that our roads can handle increasing demands? And how will these cars impact the environment? If cars can drive themselves, will a car-sharing service drop us at the office before collecting another passenger for personal chauffeuring? It all remains to be seen.