Here I am, sitting at an electric vehicle summit where autonomous vehicles (AVs) are being discussed at length, an increasingly common phenomenon. I describe AVs as a horrible-wonderful can of worms, which has already cracked itself open and is oozing out. My work life is steeped in electric vehicle enthusiasm, and naturally there is mostly excitement about AVs in my work community (tempered with some anxiety about the practicalities of supporting the tech). But being married to a philosophy professor, my home life is steeped in biomedical ethics, philosophy of science and mind, metaphysics, artificial intelligence, etc., which means lots of horrible-wonderful conversations about the ethics of writing computer codes that decide who to kill — the vehicle occupant, or the swerving cyclist.
This is my first LinkedIn “article.” Perhaps I should have led with that. I am not an expert — in writing, in AVs, or even in EVs (#foreverastudent … and do hashtags even “work” in LinkedIn articles?). So, rather than offer up profound insights on this subject, I am forced to admit what this is right up there in the title: a list, meant to catalog for myself and anyone else interested in this subject the many possible impacts, changes, and adaptations that are likely to occur or be required as a result of widespread roll-out of AV tech, each of which is dissertation material in and of itself (maybe a project for another day). This is a living list, which will expand and contract as I learn more about it at these summits, from colleagues and competitors, from philosophers … and hopefully, from readers/commenters with insights of your own!
- Coding to kill: What should the car do when faced with the split-second decision of whether to run the occupant into a wall to avoid hitting a flock of jaywalking 5 year olds. This is by far the most intense potential issue (which is why I listed it first), but my main “in” contact within the AV industry assures me that it’s not really an issue at all; that the coding is already so profoundly complex and comprehensive that the car will literally never find itself in a situation where this decision would be necessary to make. Seeing as this person is surely a bit biased on the subject, I’m going to go ahead and leave this right here until I read something that convinces me to cross it off as solved.
- Coding to save: Regardless of where we wind up with that terrible choice described above, AVs mean fewer total accidents, which means fewer related injuries and deaths overall. This cannot be overstated, because it’s real, and it’s huge. Leading into…
- ER trips: Vehicle accidents make up a notable percentage of ER trips, so what kind of impacts will virtually eliminating these trips have on hospitals?
- Traffic: … will apparently be a thing of the past when AVs rule the road. Huzzah! Seriously, though, AVs are programmed to avoid all of the major behaviors that create traffic, including those which cause highway-snarling accidents: following too closely, speeding, changing lanes too rapidly or too late, and failing to utilize secondary routes when traffic volume is high.
- Road wear: AVs are programmed to be so efficient that if they were unleashed in large numbers today, they’d run ruts into the road from following each other so exactly on popular stretches of highway. This is likely solvable with fairly minor code tweaks, but there are are also predictions that AVs will lead to increased total vehicle miles traveled, which we can’t code our way out of.
- Road maintenance: This is relevant for all EVs, not just those which drive themselves. Roads are largely maintained with gas tax funds, and in case you haven’t been paying attention to “the rEVolution,” EVs still use the roads but they don’t use any gas.
- Road design: Over 9 million road miles in the US, and still we have congestion! On top of the positive “behaviors” detailed above under the “Traffic” bullet, AVs will also very likely be smaller and will stay in a tighter lane path than human drivers do, allowing us to potentially put more lanes, and therefore more cars, on existing paved road. This means changing current road design, and it opens up possibilities for other proven traffic control methods that US drivers sometimes have difficulty adapting to (e.g. roundabouts, bike/bus lanes, “sharrows,” etc.).
- Chain of liability: Who gets sued/arrested/blamed/shamed if (when) an AV causes or contributes to a crash? The vehicle owner, manufacturer, or code-writer?
- Law enforcement: AVs are programmed to not speed, never run red lights, never text and drive, and generally operate in a way that doesn’t raise suspicion. This means no speeding tickets, no red light camera tickets, and no pulling someone over for suspicion of … anything really. In addition to reduced revenue for law enforcement agencies, this will also make it harder for them to use vehicular stops as a tool for other types of detective and arrest work. So law enforcement will probably be looking to find legal ways to track who is in which AV at any given point in time, and new ways to monitor and apprehend suspected criminals. In a nutshell, AVs are probably going to mean even less privacy for the average citizen without serious legal protections being put in place up front.
- Ownership and next-generation auto insurance: Who will own the AV, individuals or fleet companies? Probably initially the former, then a mix of the two, and then eventually mostly the latter, so insurance companies are going to have to go through the evolution along with their clients. Building on the liability bullet, how will the insurance industry respond to AVs? Given the potential for accident reduction one would think they would love them — charge the same premiums (or even more at first, taking advantage of early adopter passion and wallet size), but pay out far fewer claims. Insurance companies are the house, and the house always wins.
- Hacking: Cars are already rolling computers, and are already hackable to some extent. If a coder can write it, then someone out there can hack it. This one is complex, ranging from simply rankling consumer trust to enabling large-scale cyber-terrorism.
- Jobs: The US is disproportionately a service economy, where people make or supplement their living by feeding, waxing, advising, and driving around other people. An AV takeover puts all manner of ride-share drivers out of work, including Uber, Lyft, and taxi fleets. Usually, major tech developments bring job loss in some sectors and job creation in others — buggy whip makers went belly up, but the auto mechanics were born! Hopefully the same will be true with AVs.
- Organ donation: Remember when I wrote above about fewer deaths and injuries? Well, that could actually hurt some people. There are already far too many folks who are waiting out the remainder of their lives on organ donation lists, and fewer car crashes means fewer organs being donated. Far fewer. Thankfully, there are medical breakthroughs that could potentially solve this problem, including things like tissue and organ “printing” (seriously … organs from a printer!). And there’s YouTube, which it seems way too many completely untrained people STILL use to upload video of themselves doing really dangerous stunts for “views” and possible mention on Tosh.0.
- Signage and billboards: Will people even look out the car window at all anymore if they don’t have to? With complete, Jetsons-style AV penetration, street, directional, and even many informational signs probably go away completely, and billboards get smaller, smarter, and placed inside your AV “shuttle.” Or implanted directly into your brain! #toofar #tinfoilhat
- DUIs: A thing of the past? And since I can’t just leave it on that very positive note…
- Alcohol abuse: Could eliminating the risk of DUI conviction actually also increase the incidence of drinking to excess or alcohol addiction, as more people feeling more comfortable having that second, third, or fourth drink, knowing they won’t have to drive themselves home … ever again?
- Independence: Potentially more independence for seniors and disabled populations, and less (or at least the perception of less) for those used to having car keys in their pocket at all times.
- Urban concentration: This shift towards AVs further supports urban living, making it easier and more appealing (to many). Does this mean more gentrification, or less? Does it mean more political divisiveness between urban-blue and rural-red, or less? (ha ha, just kidding … we know it’ll be more #sadface)
- What did I miss?
Here are some potentially useful and interesting references — i.e., the dissertations that have already been written as deep dives on some of the issues above:
- The travel and environmental implications of shared autonomous vehicles, using agent-based model scenarios
- Effectiveness of low speed autonomous emergency braking in real-world rear-end crashes
- Responsibility for Crashes of Autonomous Vehicles: An Ethical Analysis
- Preparing a nation for autonomous vehicles: opportunities, barriers and policy recommendations
Image via David A. Weekly
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