Everyone has heard of the rising prevalence of semi-autonomous and fully-autonomous vehicles. With the recent development that the California Department of Motor Vehicles have approved testing for fully-autonomous vehicles (AV), questions have been raised as to the ethical robustness of this decision. So have we given enough thought to the social and ethical implications of this new era of travel? Is it moral to have fully-autonomous cars with no mechanism for driver intervention on the road? This post aims to shed some light on the main issues surrounding this topic.
A safer and leisurely drive
In the US over 90% of road traffic accidents are caused by driver error with more than 70% of these being caused by driver recognition or decision making errors, figure 1. If the entire population moved to a 100% fully AV system it could mean a “95 to 99.99 percent reduction in total fatalities and injuries on the road.” So it is clear that moving to a fully AV system would drastically reduce fatalities seen on the road. Reducing fatalities increasing the average length of life of the population and this is of a higher moral importance than any other possible argument against AV. So, should we be putting pressure on our governments to help move us into an age of fully AV vehicles. People have argued that in the situation of an unavoidable crash, a fully autonomous vehicle would need to make an ethical decision on it’s next action. However, manufacturers are constructing their cars to reduce overall damage to everyone within a crash with no prejudice. But in a world with the roads occupied with autonomous vehicles this situation becomes extremely unlikely to occur.
Imagine a world where your morning commute is filled with productive work, Netflix or just laying back and relaxing rather than dealing with the usual stresses and strains involved with getting to work. With the development of fully AV vehicles this is the future! Allowing fully AV on the road increases our free time, reduces stress and generally will increase quality of life for all those who spend time on the road. In a world where the everyday person experiences higher stress levels than ever before in history, surely it’s vital that we do everything possible to buck this trend?
Fully autonomous vehicles could also give newly found freedom and opportunities to those who couldn’t previously drive. With the ‘driver’ of an AV only having to start the car and tell it where they want to go, those who were unable to drive due to disability could now have access to their own private vehicle and travel easily to anywhere they wish. Current cars often don’t accommodate to those with disabilities, and those that do are prohibitively extremely expensive. If fully autonomous vehicles are supported and become widely used, we could have affordable and accessible private transport, regardless of their ability to drive.
With the practical advantages of fully AV undeniable, is it moral to push for this future? As we have found AV holds to the potential to reduce fatalities on the road, improve quality of life for all members of society. So it is our moral duty to do everything within our powers to overcome all of the obstacles that still face AV and help it reach its full potential for the betterment of everyone in society.
Is the future of our roads filled with risk?
The introduction of fully AVs will not only provide technical challenges and conflicting viewpoints regarding moral decisions that the systems may have to make, however the impact upon society and businesses associated with the automotive industry will also be huge.
Statistics show that AVs will reduce the number of collisions and accidents, however it is inevitable that such events will still occur. With no option for passenger intervention the so-called ‘driver’ cannot possibly be at fault, and thus a shift of liability from driver to manufacturer is unavoidable. Insurance packages as we know them will become meaningless, potentially threatening current auto-insurance companies; Morgan Stanley believe that such changes could cause the auto-insurance business to drop by 80% by 2040. The option for manufacturers to buy product liability insurance seems possible, however this would mean a huge change in the current auto-insurance industry and will not be a quick or easy transition.
The inability for current public transport to take commuters from door-to-door will be eradicated by autonomous services – and likely for a cheaper price! The possibility that the public transport sector could become obsolete is conceivable, resulting in reduced business activity and employment worldwide. Whilst AVs provide the opportunity for highly skilled jobs in the software development sector, is it ethically acceptable for this disruptive technology to take the jobs of many public transportation employees?
In addition to the potential removal of public transport as we know it, extra-societal risk will be incurred due to increased vulnerability to large solar storms, of which we have largely been untouched by in the last century.
As you might know current semi-autonomous vehicles are dependent on Global Positioning Satellites (GPS) to locate themselves up to within a centimetre on the world, for safe and functional operation. What you might not know is that 10% of satellites are expected to encounter an “anomaly” during the next superstorm, leading to hours or days of outage(8). However, considerable uncertainties surround the performance of satellites in a superstorm which could act in our favour or detriment. Regardless, a world already increasingly dependent on digital hardware, would be devastated in mass by damaging events on the ground, particularly electric transformers are likely to fail(8,9). Homes could be left without for significant periods.
Now in a truly dark hour, how would a society now completely dependent on driverless only cars fare? The problem would be exacerbated, first responders and repair crews not able to reach sites in need of help, because of the lacking functionality of future driverless cars.
Care must taken to ensure any societal shift towards driverless vehicles do not increase our vulnerability to extreme and often unpredictable events.