Since 1950, automobile manufacturers have engineered features and functionality in an effort to improve safety and ease of use. Certainly, the additions of seat belts, antilock brakes, blindspot detection, and warning systems have improved safety. Beginning with cruise control and running into today’s features, such as adaptive cruise control, automatic braking, and self-park, great strides have also been made to automate the driver experience.
Excitement for automated vehicles (AV) was theoretically high as people imagined increasing their productivity during the time they would otherwise spend behind the wheel. The thought of conducting a meeting, reviewing documentation, or even scrolling through social media feeds are welcome alternatives to driving. Theory and practice, however, do not always align. Automation has, at least in some ways, outpaced our ability to factor in human reasoning and ethics for the sake of utility and efficiency. As of yet, no fully automated vehicle exists, which leaves some space and time to wrestle with the hard questions we must ask to get there.
One of the most fascinating findings that came out of a 2018 study by the American Automobile Association was the fear of riding in a full AV increased to 64 percent from 49 percent in less than a year’s time from 2017 to 2018. Since millennials are notorious for being early adopters of technology, this hesitancy is at first shocking. Considering the number of high-profile accidents that have occurred with pilot AVs, though, the finding is less of a surprise.
Aside from the safety issues Tesla has faced with regard to their battery packs and cooling system fires, they have also made the news for autopilot crashes. From 2018-2019, there were three high-profile crashes in Teslas while autopilot was engaged. One involved the car driving under a semi-tractor trailer, and the other two involved collisions with very large objects, including a highway barrier and a fire truck. If the technology isn’t able to sense large objects in certain circumstances, how can it sense smaller objects like pedestrians or motorcycles?
Moreover, there remains a conflict of interest in that the car manufacturers are not yet regulated and instead must self-assess. Manufacturers are duty-bound to disclose certain safety issues, but there is no system in place to oversee or regulate the process proactively. As you can imagine, companies’ self-interests have the potential to compete with morality, which brings us to another point.
Important Ethical Questions
In March of 2018, an Uber automated test vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian who walked into the road in its path. This case brings up two important considerations:
- How much additional safety can we reasonably expect knowing we can’t ever factor in 100 percent of unexpected scenarios?
- How are ethical dilemmas handled?
Reasonable Expectation of Safety
It is clear that once full automation is achieved that it will not be able to reduce collisions and accidents to zero. Automation does reduce or eliminate the issue of driver impairment as well as lack of perception. A vehicle is never going to be intoxicated, and sensors can be placed in enough locations to eliminate virtually any blind spot (although they will need to be improved to manage motorcycle and pedestrian safety). But there are other scenarios, such as predicting and deciding, that moves us into a gray area.
Going back to the Uber incident, presumably, neither the car nor a human driver could predict that a pedestrian would step out in front of them. Some events simply aren’t predictable, and these types of scenarios account for a lot of accidents. To expect that all unexpected scenarios can be accounted for may not be unrealistic, but it opens up the door to the second issue: ethics.
Imagine a child walking in front of a car with only one way to turn to avoid them, but if you do, you hit an elderly man instead. What do you do? Do you see the problem with programming this decision, along with countless other moral dilemmas?
We will get to the point where AV becomes the norm, but just like driving, we can’t forsake safety for speed and efficiency. Many questions remain, which will inevitably involve legal answers. We will see where the journey leads us.
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