According to Google, nearly 94% of all car accidents in the US have human error as a major factor. That’s 5.75 million accidents, and nearly 30,000 deaths, on average.
Imagine if, instead of human error, that was some machine problem. Imagine if that 94% of all car accidents were caused by the design of the wheels, for example. As soon as that figure comes out, there’d be a public outcry to change the design of the wheel. It’d take maybe a few years to make all cars have the new wheel design, but there’d be a huge impetus to do so, because it’d be saving lives.
(Google's self driving car. Source: Google)
Unfortunately for us, people are very slightly more complicated than wheels, and so this problem has been incredibly hard to address. We’ve taken huge strides in that area; we teach people to be considerate drivers, to obey speed limits, to check our mirrors and our blind-spots. We’ve built vehicles that can crash without hurting people as badly, we design roads so that people have lots of room in their lane to allow them to not be perfect drivers. And, rather importantly, we don’t allow those who are incapable of the reactions and measured thinking required to drive in the modern world to, well, drive.
A rather large amount of our technology and engineering is designed to remove the human element, because it’s safer and more efficient to do so. This permeates our culture - writing is a brilliant example. You cannot perfectly remember this article, and pass it verbatim to your friends, because for the vast majority of people that’d be nigh on impossible. However, seeing as this has been written down, you can share it with all of your friends nice and easily, removing your memory as a factor in the equation.
Which is why it shouldn’t surprise anyone that people are trying to do this with our driving. While a computer will most likely not slash car accidents by 94%, it can easily slash it by a large margin. A full third of fatal crashes in the US in 2013 were caused by drunk driving. If every single car is automated, then those deaths do not happen. Another third is caused by speeding. Again, if every single car is automated, then those deaths do not happen. One sixth is caused by the driver being distracted. Again, say it with me, if every single car is automated, those deaths do not happen.
The problem, therefore, comes in two flavours. The first is a legal one. If an automated car crashes, and even the greatest proponents of them would admit that they would, whose fault is it? Is it the passenger in the ‘driver’ seat? Is it the car manufacturer? Does anyone have a liability for it? In short, who on earth needs to pay accident insurance on the car? Not only that, but most current laws require a person in the driver’s seat, for obvious steering-related reasons. Is it just that the law needs to change? Would a person have to be in the driver’s seat, hands poised over the wheel, just in case something goes wrong? And if it does, is relying on a person’s mental speed going to be enough to change anything?
The second, and significantly more difficult and interesting flavour is an ethical one. To put it simply, it’s an issue of agency: of who’s in control. Let’s take the scenario: You are driving down the street, chatting away happily to the person in the back seat, and don’t notice a group of lovely old grannies walking across the road until it’s almost too late. You have two choices. You can either do nothing to change your course, and cause harm to the grannies, or you can alter your course, and plow straight into a tree, potentially killing yourself and your passengers. (For those of you wanting a better explanation of this, it’s basically the ‘Trolley Problem’ in ethics). This is already a question without a clear answer if you, the driver, are having to consider it; but how will a computer be able to work it out? Will it simply take a utilitarian view, and risk the fewest lives, potentially killing the inhabitants of the car? Will it take the view that murderous inaction is a morally better thing than murderous action, and hit the grannies? At the moment, there is no correct answer. But there will have to be soon. Japan hope to have automated taxis on the ground in time for the 2020 Olympic games, and most predictions suggest that automated cars will be production ready by 2030. That’s really not that far away.
The future of cars is on the horizon. Ironically, we’ll have to work out how to navigate our way there ourselves. Let’s hope we get to the right destination.
All statistics taken from here except when otherwise noted.
Google has an in-depth article on the ethics of its cars here.