Throughout history and especially in recent decades, mankind has imagined and reimagined technology of the future– from holograms and robots to self-driving cars. That future we’ve dreamed up is now within arm’s reach as scientists and engineers have built autonomous (also known as self-driving) car prototypes. However, now that autonomous cars are essentially a reality, are we ready to face everything that comes with them?
People are seemingly divided over the concept of autonomous cars. It’s difficult to fathom that we’ll be stripped of our control, and will be forced to instead place our faith in a programmed system. It’s one thing to use artificial technology for “harmless, stationary tools like google assistants or self-serve checkouts, but to use the same technology on a moving vehicle seems infinitely more scary, and understandably so. Contrastingly, many experts argue that autonomous vehicles will actually keep the roads safer than they are currently. Autonomous vehicles also come with a number of ethical issues, from who is responsible to There is an infamous quote stating “replace the fear of the unknown with curiosity”–instead of immediately dismissing this foreign concept, let’s try to get a better understanding of it.
How Autonomous Vehicles Are Designed
Currently, robotic cars are programmed to follow the rules of the road: avoid crashes at all costs and obey the law. It seems counterproductive as current legal systems aren’t equipped with legislation on autonomous cars, yet self-driving cars are programmed to follow a law that fails to even recognize them. Having cars that avoid crashes may seem brilliant at a surface level, but what are the effects of avoiding a crash? Perhaps a car suddenly braked to avoid rear ending someone, but shifted the crash to someone rear ending it instead. Or, maybe a car swerved off the road to avoid a crash but hit a person as a result. The possibilities are endless, and until now humans have been driving on their own morality and at times, luck. Now that we are in a position to consider all of the what-ifs, programming autonomous cars can be infinitely complicated. Would all of our problems be solved if we could program autonomous vehicles to make decisions based on morality?
The Trolley Problem
The Trolley Problem is a famous thought exercise developed by ethicists. In the problem, an individual is on a trolley heading straight towards five helpless individuals, unable to escape the tracks. The conductor of the train is faced with a choice: do nothing, go forward and hit the five people or switch the lever and hit one individual instead. At first glance, this problem may seem simple: kill less people. However, as one delves deeper into the problem, it reveals moral intuitions that are inconsistent amongst all people. There is no right or wrong answer– either you make a choice to not make a choice and in the process kill five people, or you make a conscious choice to end the life of one individual.
The root of inconsistencies in the trolley problem have been applied by anti-autonomous car theorists to prove that they can’t operate on such a black-or-white basis. Firstly, how can a car without its own, original sense of morality be programmed to make a choice? There are many mundane situations in which humans are able to easily make decisions that programmed vehicles may not be able to recognize as easily. For example, autonomous vehicles can have difficulty identifying faces or bikes on sidewalks, whereas people would easily be able to avoid them. This is commonly referred to as Moravec’s paradox— skills learned over time and through evolution that are incredibly to translate or teach to a computer program.
Programming computers to drive cars also pose a problem in that it will eventually be applied to all cars– meaning that no car will have any individual identity. Essentially, a car’s algorithm will have to be law and if there is an error in the algorithm, all autonomous cars may be affected at the exact same time.
Financially, autonomous cars could help save some cash through eliminating insurance premiums. After all, there will be no driver’s insurance required if there is no driver at all! With self-driving cars, the only form of insurance that will require regular payments will be for the cars themselves.
Ultimately, the biggest problem in creating autonomous cars for the masses is that they can never be personalized to an individual’s morality, and they can never collectively represent all of humanity. Who gets to decide who a car will save? Who will decide who a car will hit if it is facing a tough decision? Even if humans are able to program an autonomous car to think with morality, it will be based off of on one set of moral choice of millions. There is so much to consider– potholes, public parking, highways, animals on roads, traffic lights, stop signs, and any unforeseen circumstances. On top of that, humans benefit off of breaking the law in certain circumstances– for example, speeding to the hospital in the case of an emergency. Should a car crash into another car in order to save the at-risk life of the human in its car?
Experts suggest that the only solution to developing autonomous cars worldwide is to create some kind of social consensus of what risks humankind is willing to take, and what our priorities are. Considering such a statement seems like a laughable idea– after all, how could we ever come up with a moral code reflecting the thoughts and feelings of every human on the planet?
The Benefits of Autonomous Vehicles
Although there are many moral dilemmas involved in the creation of autonomous vehicles, science still suggests that roads will be safer than they are with humans driving. There’s only one catch– for there to be a significant change in road safety, every car will have to be self-driving. The mix of humans and autonomous cars on the road can be dangerous as they will both be operating under different driving conditions– one with morality prioritized, and one with the law prioritized.
Another major plus side of self-moving cars, and potentially the most exciting is that it frees humans from the manual labour of driving! With automated cars, we’ll no longer have to press on the gas pedal, turn steering wheels, press on breaks, or any other driving-related tasks. This is a huge win for mankind as we’ll now have our time freed to focus on other tasks. No longer having to drive can increase efficiency and productivity all while (hopefully) keeping the roads a little bit safer.
There are several other measurable improvements that can be made as automated vehicles evolve over time. Firstly, there may be less traffic on the roads as cars continually learn of their surroundings and are able to connect with other cars. It is predicted that they will be able to actually identify routes with less traffic, find the quickest routes, and ultimately split demand amongst road space to optimize driving time for all cars on the road.
Did you know that over 80% of car crashes within the united states occur due to driver error? The most debated issue of automated cars is safety– and while hypothetical scenarios like the trolley problem do create major concerns, it’s also unlikely to occur often ( in fact life-or-death situations will be scarce in comparison to accidents occurring now). With driverless cars, there will no longer be drunk drivers or just bad drivers in generals. There would also be no parking difficulty as autonomous cars are programmed to do the work for you!
When it comes to current ride-sharing services, they will also be likely to expand as autonomous cars gain traction globally. Autonomous cars paired with ride sharing services could even be such a successful combination that it could even eliminate car ownership entirely in the future!
Historically, driving has only been accessible to those with physical and mental means to drive. If autonomous cars were to take over in society, all people would be able to experience travel via car. Drivers tests and licenses would no longer be necessary, and there would be no demographic left out.
Other benefits of self-driving cars are increased overall health, reduced emissions, reduced theft and job development. Poor health has been linked to driving as traffic jams have reportedly created decreases in cardiovascular fitness, developed signs of anxiety and depression, increase blood pressure, and reduce sleep. Because cars will be more efficient than ever in terms of traffic, routing, and travel time, there will also likely be a noticeable decrease in greenhouse gas emissions. Some reports even suggest that gas emissions will report by 87-94% by 2030! Finally, although many worry about the loss of driving jobs, there will also be new demand for all-things tech: engineers, software developers, and autonomous machine experts!
We’ve discussed some major concerns of autonomous vehicles- life threatening programming that could legally prevent autonomous cars from driving on roads all together, as well as some incredible, world-altering benefits of autonomous cars. We’re sure this will continue to be a heavily debated topic for some time, but as we’ve all learned, we don’t really know what the future holds. When it comes to the issue of modern driverless cars, how do you feel about the moral dilemmas they present? Comment below with your thoughts!