Big Brother & Ethics Are Challenges For Autonomous Cars

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Tesla has finished rolling out firmware Version 9, the programming that brings all its cars built with Hardware Package 2 to the brink of fully autonomous driving capability. In China, electric car startup Nio is gearing up to produce what it calls the most fully connected cars ever. The dream of cars that drive themselves seemed like a fantasy just a few short years ago. Now it is becoming a reality.

autonomous car
Credit: Popular Mechanics

Back in the 50s, magazines like Popular Mechanics often featured cover art depicting a typical American family gliding serenely down the highway in a self-driving car while the family inside was absorbed in a rousing game of Parcheesi. As Steely Dan would say, “What a beautiful world this will be. What a glorious time to be free.”

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What could possibly go wrong, huh? According to Bloomberg, a few glitches might occur along the way. In a recent story about Nio, it suggests that a car that is connected to the internet could have issues with digital security. Not only could hackers steal personal data or alter the function of the automobile, governments could collect all that data to monitor the activities of drivers and their passengers. Hmmmm… maybe Tomorrowland is not such a golden paradise after all?

The more our cars know about us, the more we can be targeted by marketers. It is not much of a stretch to imagine an unending stream of pop-up ads appearing on the digital touchscreens popularized by Tesla. Advertisers would know where we are and where we are going, blanketing us with offers from local merchants along the way. “Turn right in ¼ mile for free French fries with any Big Mac, today only.” “All ladies’ shoes on sale next 10 minutes only at Shoe World.” “Fifi is low on dog food. Use this promo code to save 10% at Bark And Bite, just ahead on the left.”

Those examples may be somewhat whimsical, but helping the government track our every move doesn’t sound so delightful. Nor does helping your spouse’s divorce lawyer prove you weren’t where you were supposed to be three months ago on a certain night.

When Nio went public last month, its prospectus warned potential investors that the risk of information security failure and privacy concerns posed significant challenges. In particular, it mentioned “an increased level of expertise of hackers” in a world where digital manipulation is considered somewhat of a sport by some. Data breaches at Facebook in the past 2 years should make all of us more aware of how vulnerable our online data is. If you can’t trust Facebook to guard your data, why should you trust your car company to do so?

Should Autonomous Cars Crash Or Swerve?

autonomous car MG
Credit: Pinterest

The official motto of the MG Car Company was “Safety Fast.” It was meant to suggest that a light, nimble vehicle with accurate steering, good acceleration, and decent brakes had a better chance of swerving to avoid a dangerous situation on the road than the bovine creations American car companies liked to crank out. Whether the cars actually offered anything like real crash protection in the event of a collision is doubtful, however. (Note: I say this as someone who owned a succession of MG automobiles over a period of 30 years.)

Autonomous cars will crash. Not at the same rate as cars with human drivers but they will find things to run into no matter how good the software is. Researchers at the Society of Risk Analysis were curious about whether self-driving cars should be programmed to stay in their lane and brake as hard as possible when confronted by an emergency situation or whether they should be instructed to swerve away from danger. The problem, of course, is that by swerving, other people — innocent bystanders, for example — could be exposed to risk.

Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, they queried hundreds of volunteers and found the majority preferred the “stay in your lane and brake hard” option to the swerving away from trouble choice. In reviewing their data, the determining factor appeared to be tied to remorse. If people swerved and caused harm to an innocent person, they were more likely to feel remorse for their action than if they just plowed straight ahead and tried to slow down as quickly as possible.

The results may say more about human attitudes than about autonomous driving systems. Most drivers, when confronted with an inevitable collision, close their eyes, jam on the brakes, and hope for the best. The research suggests people expect self-driving cars to do the same. Anti-lock braking systems were developed to enable drivers to steer away from trouble but there is little evidence to suggest people actually use ABS for that purpose.

In their report, entitled “How Should Autonomous Cars Drive? A Preference for Defaults in Moral Judgments Under Risk and Uncertainty,” the researchers conclude that people creating self-driving algorithms need to be aware of social norms. If autonomous cars behave significantly differently than people would do under similar circumstances, there is a risk the public will reject the idea of self driving cars.

The Takeaway

Since there is a lot of money being poured into making self-driving systems, the value of that investment is directly tied to how well those systems mirror the cultural norms of society. The researchers point out that those norms are not universal. The expectations of people in India may be markedly different from those of people in Indiana, for example. Manufacturers will need to be aware of those differences if they wish to gain popular acceptance for their self driving vehicles and avoid being punished by courts for making cars that do not conform to local norms.

In the final analysis, connected cars and autonomous cars may solve some issues but create others. Companies like Tesla and Nio, as well as Waymo and Uber, need to understand all the ramifications that flow from the new technological wonders they are creating if they hope to see a significant return on their investments.

Navigating the pitfalls of human expectations may be more dangerous than avoiding other vehicles on the road. As the old expression goes, “Be careful what you wish for. You just might get it.”


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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

Steve Hanley has 5538 posts and counting. See all posts by Steve Hanley