If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is a video worth? Last Sunday, a self-driving car owned by Uber struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. A video of the incident showing both exterior and interior views has now been released and it is bound to stir up controversy. Those who think self-driving cars are spawn of the Devil will look at it and see one thing. Those who hail autonomous cars as saviors will see it completely differently. Here’s the video. Judge for yourself.
OK. Now you have seen it. What do you think? If you were driving, would you have seen the pedestrian and avoided her? If not, why not? If you were the human driver in the car, would you have more or less attentive to your surroundings? Do you think you could have taken over control of the car in time to a avoid the collision?
Are Autonomous Cars Safe?
The video has caused a firestorm on the internet and social media sites. And it raises several important questions. Are autonomous cars safe enough to be operated on public streets? Is the life of one person too high a price to pay for advancements in technology? More than 30,000 people die on American streets every year in motor vehicle accidents. If self-driving cars could cut that total in half, would the greater good outweigh the harm to a few unfortunate people who aren’t saved?
These questions drop us right in the middle of a messy debate about morality and ethics, problems that machines are woefully inadequate at solving. Whose ethics and whose morality? Machines only know what those who program them allow them to know. Autonomous cars are begin tested in several states at this time. More than 20 companies have received licenses to test their self-driving cars in California, but Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Florida have similar programs underway. Last year, the Michigan legislature, wishing to make their state a leader in the field, passed legislation allowing manufacturers to sell autonomous cars there.
Is Uber The Issue?
Uber is in the crosshairs here because of its reputation as a rogue operation, thanks to the outrageously boorish behavior of its founder, Travis Kalanick. When San Francisco denied the company a license to operate self-driving cars on its streets, the company went ahead and did it anyway. But is Uber the issue here or is it autonomous driving systems in general? Should there be standards all self-driving programs conform to? If so, should they be federal standards? State standards? Local standards? Right now it is Wild West time out there on the streets, with dozens of companies developing their own software in secret in order to gain a competitive advantage.
The video provokes other questions as well. It clearly shows the human driver looking about, glancing down, and generally acting bored. If we thought these “safety drivers” were alert and aware at all times, continuously scanning the road ahead for signs of danger, we were wrong. Many have noted that when machines take over, people tend to assume they will perform perfectly all the time every time. Psychologists know our attention soon wanders and it takes a few seconds for us to refocus and reassert control when needed. It’s human nature.
Speaking of human nature, here’s my prediction of how this will play out. The driver will be charged with some minor offense, pay a fine, and will never be heard from again. The company will make a generous donation to the family of the deceased, who will be required to sign a non-disclosure agreement in order to receive the money. Uber will announce updates to its software and quietly resume its autonomous testing program after a respectful period of time.
The city of Tempe will erect a chain link fence on the median strip near where this accident occurred to make it harder for people to cross the road at that point. Some attorney you never heard of will file suit on behalf of the deceased, have 15 minutes of fame, and go back to living in obscurity. All the other companies designing self-driving systems will rub their hands with glee at Uber’s travails and issue statements reassuring the public that their programming is superior and would never allow such a thing to happen. Progress toward self-driving cars will continue unabated. There is simply too much money to be made to allow anything to stop the march of progress.
Your World, Recorded
One thing that causes me concern is knowing cars of the future will record our actions every second while we are behind the wheel. Are you comfortable with that? Think back to all the times you did something stupid while driving. Would you want those moments spread all over the internet for the world to see or available for the police to scrutinize for evidence of negligence? There are several episodes of Black Mirror that focus on what society will be like when everything we do is a matter of public record. It’s a scary thought.
The last thought I have about all this is that we are all beta testers for self-driving technology. It is clear that autonomous systems are far from perfected. They have come a long way in a few short years but they still have a long way to go. It is one thing for owners of those cars to allow companies like Tesla to accumulate petabytes of data while they drive, but do companies have a license to include members of the general public in their experiments? Do first responders at the scene of an accident consent to putting their lives in danger because a car operating in autonomous mode can’t “see” a big red truck with enough flashing lights to illuminate Yankee Stadium parked in the roadway?
Well, those are enough questions for now. Please share your thoughts in the comments section. Let the games begin!
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