A challenging issue confronts us: Are driverless automobiles safe?

Is it right to look at the autonomous vehicle transformation only as a technological innovation?

8 mins read
A challenging issue confronts us: Are driverless automobiles safe?

I’ve been helping a buddy learn to drive for a few months now, and the experience has allowed me to perform some mansplaining while simultaneously reflecting on my own driving.

Although I have been driving for many years, I initially had a very difficult time conveying my knowledge, because the behaviors we do in traffic, which have an experience behind them, turn into a set of ossified reflexes after a while. Therefore, I had to analyze and analyze within myself before explaining why I do what I do. The only problem is that there are too many different behaviors and scenarios that keep us alive behind the wheel.

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Which brings us to the topic of this week’s article, autonomous vehicles.

There are billion-dollar initiatives and millions of kilometers of test/simulation drives for driverless cars.

Autonomous vehicles have many advantages over human drivers. They don’t get tired, they don’t get behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol, and they don’t honk their horns when traffic slows down by 1 percent of their own pace. It is also unlikely for autonomous taxis to select customers based on location or nationality.

But they struggle to do the little things that we humans do so easily (like predicting what a pedestrian or driver will do). And as I mentioned above, the number of these ‘small’ scenarios is very, very large. Because the rules of the road may be fixed, but humans are complex creatures.

A fighter pilot’s appeal

The number of people voicing these concerns is not small. An engineer named Missy Cummings, who wrote that more tests should be conducted on autonomous cars, drew the ire of Tesla founder Elon Musk on Twitter. Cummings, one of the first female fighter pilots in the US, did not back down. Fighter piloting gave her experience with the hidden dangers of automation and user interfaces, and Cummings has witnessed several fatal accidents.

In his view, what he calls the ‘hypermasculine culture’ in Silicon Valley was intertwined with the ‘move fast and break things’ mission statement of big tech companies, and the bro culture encouraged ignoring security risks.

So who’s right? Cummings, or Waymo, Cruise and Tesla?

The first manned vehicles also caused concern

One of the biggest obstacles to the widespread use of autonomous vehicles is so-called ‘extreme cases’. On October 3, a pedestrian was struck by a manned car and thrown onto the road, where he was hit by a Cruise robotaxi and the company’s license was suspended. The allegations that Cruise ‘hid the footage of the accident’ confirm Cummings’ buddy-sauce safety concerns.

On the other hand, it is worth remembering that similar debates existed when the first motorized cars were introduced. Drivers of motor vehicles were given unprecedented freedom and automobiles changed the world. At the same time, they opened the door to many disasters, from urban sprawl to traffic deaths and global warming. But if we had a time machine, would we go back in time and say ‘no’ to the automobile? Not a chance.

In this respect, autonomous vehicles rewriting all the rules of transportation is a bigger concern than road safety. But have similar concerns been enough to stop ‘what is coming’ throughout human history? No, they have not.

We can get rid of parking lots

The autonomous vehicle revolution also has positive aspects: In a world where driverless cars are active in traffic, autonomous vehicles will initially (due to costs) serve as robot taxis. Cheap transportation will be provided and the need to buy a car will weaken for city dwellers. By 2050, it is estimated that car ownership will decrease by 70 percent. This means empty parking lots.

While concerns about mixed traffic are justified, it is a reasonable expectation that in a future where transportation is fully autonomous, deaths from accidents will decrease. As the vehicles are electric, harmful emissions will also be reduced.

Cities will be reshaped, the way we work will change. Instead of selling to individuals, automakers will become suppliers to fleet operators. City planners will be able to dynamically charge based on time, density and journey length to minimize congestion.

Social risks are also present

But it is possible that this autonomous system could be used as a tool of social control for authoritarian regimes. Vehicles will be the black box of life, recording everything that happens in and around them. When a crime is committed, the police will ask the cars if they saw anything. Fleet owners (his name could be Mark) will have a lot of information about their passengers.

People’s driving will become subject to a permit, which could make freedom of transportation an object of discrimination.

Many, many years ago, we embraced motorized vehicles as a solution to horse-drawn carriages and the smell of manure. We did not think about the social consequences. Today, looking at autonomous vehicles as a mere technological innovation can lead us into the same cycle. It is natural to embrace the comforts of innovation, but this time it is better to take steps much more carefully against the risks. (They didn’t)

What about ethical decisions?
Autonomous vehicles have also re-popularized the tram problem, an ethical debate:

A tram is speeding towards an intersection. Five people are tied to the tracks ahead and another person is tied to the siding. You are the person holding a lever that controls the intersection. If you do nothing, five people will die. If you pull the lever, one person will die.

We humans make these difficult decisions on the fly when we drive, and each individual acts according to his or her own judgment. But when we set ethical codes for software or algorithms, this will become the norm and the ethical debate will become much more fleshed out.

The autonomous vehicle in a difficult situation will decide where to steer when it sees a child, a woman, a criminal, a dog, according to this code.

But are we ready for this choice to become the norm?


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