How would you feel about driving down the highway at 65mph when suddenly you realize that the car that just passed you did not have a driver! No driver, only passengers—a group of seniors running late to their next Bingo game! How accepting would you be to the idea of sharing the highways with throngs of “driverless” cars? And what would be some of the “what ifs” or “ethical issues” you would have with this scenario?
Figure 1: Google’s self-driving car
Before we get into the thick of things, let me give you some hard statistical numbers to brood over. According to the National Highway Traffics Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) FATALITY ANALYSIS REPORTING SYSTEM (FARS) collision with another motor vehicle in transport was the most common first harmful event for fatal, injury, and property-damage-only crashes. These accidents have resulted, again according to the NHTSA website, in ~84 motor vehicle traffic deaths DAILY in 2012 throughout the US. And that my friends, is with drivers behind the wheel! Do you think driverless cars would fare any better or be safer?
During one of our recent technical marketing team meetings, a bikeshedding discussion broke out regarding potential ethical issues surrounding the idea of the “driverless” car. Within minutes, the discussion was all over the place and differing significantly. Some arguing that no new ethical issues are facing this new technology that has not been addressed already with similar applications, i.e., the driverless train. Others pointed out that this is all part of the process any new technology faces when still in its infancy stage of development, ethical issues come up, and after a short period of public resistance they are slowly absorbed or incorporated into the mainstream. Think of it as classical conditioning of the masses.
Figure 2: Today's automotive infotainment systems (Source: Mouser Electronics)
Take, for instance, texting and driving. While it continues to be a major issue and the cause of many of the traffic accidents, for the most part, it has become the social norm - stemming from the popularity of the smartphone. In fact, most major automobile makers are incorporating “infotainment systems” into all of their flagship models. Wouldn’t that also be considered a potential source of driver distraction? The issue of texting and driving has become so mainstream that even churches have something to say, “Honk if you love Jesus, text while driving if you want to meet him.”
Figure 3: Driverless Car (Source: MikeKeefe-InToon.com)
Increasingly we are exponentially bombarded with so much technology piled on top of more technology than we were just a decade ago when Samsung's flip phones pushed into the 3G and 3-megapixel space, Apple's iPod was still the perfect music player in the market, and Windows Vista had still not launched. New technology is being used in so many applications and in so many different ways that we have become somewhat numb to the reality that we’ve become conditioned and accepting of many of the things we would consider unprincipled, i.e., texting and driving, camera’s recording our every move, and soon drones flying everywhere. But, I’ll leave all that for another time and another blog.
Additionally, there were others that were more cautious with their take on the whole thing and drove the point that it is now, in the early stages of development that the engineering world should deal with the potential ethical issues a driverless or autonomous car would bring. They pointed out that addressing these matters early on when the nascent fields of artificial intelligence are still being developed would be much better to allow the technology to become an everyday thing vs. later when it could severely impact how the technology is deployed or used.
So what exactly are some of these ethical issues? Well to better answer the question I would pose a scenario that goes something link this: The year is 2045, our nation’s highway system has been totally overhauled to adapt to driverless cars. Traffic jams are a thing of the past; traffic lights are no longer needed. All of the cars on the highway talk to each other like nodes on a smart grid. Live television, news, and weather along with your destination information, etc. are always being updated on your car’s infotainment system. Car’s no longer run on petrol; they’ve all gone green and run on batteries with an average range of 400-500 miles. Cars can be recharged in 10 minutes (stay with me, blue sky) via wireless magnetic resonance charging spots in parking lots, driveways, manhole covers, or while you stop at a lightless intersection waiting on your car’s CPU to decide when it’s safe to move. Highway smart lighting now guilds your driverless car to its destination.
Figure 4: Traffic Stops of the Future (Source: Automotive IT News)
I won’t disclose exactly where my personal point of view lies, but I will tell you that several times during the confab I found myself being pulled in one direction only to be pulled back in the opposing direction with every new point made by one of the partakers. After the meeting, I kept thinking about the discussion and decided to ponder the issue a little further and conduct a little research on my own.
The question that had triggered the heated dialogue seemed simple, but by the reaction of those involved it appears that perhaps it’s not that simple to answer, or maybe the answer might not suit everyone’s point of view. Question: If all conditions are normal, the driverless car is functioning correctly then what should the car’s automating algorithmic decision making process be when this scenario happens: The driverless car is traveling at normal speed with a family of five onboard. To the left of the car is a wall barrier, to right a tanker-truck carrying a Hazmat load and all of a sudden a pedestrian crosses the road. What should the car’s decision making process be? Should it veer left and hit the wall and potentially hurt or kill the occupants? Should it veer right and hit the tanker-truck and avoiding killing the pedestrian but cause an environmental incident and potentially also hurt the occupants. Or, should it hit the pedestrian, and avoid any more collateral damage? Here lies the conundrum with this ethical issue.
Rudy is the Project Manager for the Technical Content Marketing team at Mouser Electronics, accountable for the timely delivery of the Application and Technology sites from concept to completion. He has 30 years of experience working with electromechanical systems, manufacturing processes, military hardware, and managing domestic and international technical projects. He holds an MBA from Keller Graduate School of Management with a concentration in Project Management. Prior to Mouser, he worked for National Semiconductor and Texas Instruments. Rudy may be reached at email@example.com.
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