Fully Autonomous Car Without A Steering Wheel

Autonomous Vehicles: The Future Of Our Roads?

Group 6

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.

Graph Showing Critical Reasons for Traffic Accidents in the US
Figure 1: Adapted from US Department of Transport data.

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.

29 thoughts on “Autonomous Vehicles: The Future Of Our Roads?

  1. Nowadays, in rail sector there are many cases around the world (Paris Metro) where trains don’t have any drivers and are fully autonomous. Majority of the public has accepted them as the next step in travel and are benefiting from it. In my opinion, autonomous cars are the next step in travel sector transformation. I don’t agree that it will have a big impact on public transport as people got easily adjusted to travelling on driverless trains, I don’t see public buses being any different from them. Most likely, they will help to relieve the congestions in big cities like London or Paris where the traffic congestion is already too much to handle for the roads. I believe that redundant drivers will not have problems in finding a new job as throughout the history there were always cases when some of professions became extinct and new ones appeared.

    However, an option to manually drive a car should be left for the passengers and drivers to decide. In a case of accident or malfunction, a passenger could take the control from the autonomous system and continue on the journey driving manually. Also, there are many people who actually enjoy driving on the road and it helps them to relax and find solitude. Therefore, this freedom cannot be taken away and a choice of driving should be left for drivers to decide. In these cases, autonomous system should still monitor the journey and during unexpected dangerous situations prevent a car accident.

  2. Wow! I hadn’t considered the effect a solar storm could have on driverless cars. Up until that point the safety aspect of AVs was compelling, but as someone who actively wants solar storms as that increases my chances of seeing the Northern Lights I hadn’t considered their hazard to this new technology.

    I think, as the previous, comment says some capacity for human intervention needs to be kept. Certainly, first responders may need this facility.

    A final comment is to encourage to develop the ethical angles to this article. How does Utilitarianism and Kant’s theory inform the two sides of the issue?

  3. With the majority of negative press around the future of AV being focussed on the ethical decision of the car in an extreme scenario, it is nice to see figures relating to the overall reduction of fatalities, and how manufacturers can deal with other potentially fatal incidents, this should really play into the ethical benefits of the AV.
    Whilst the future of the automotive industry is likely to be widely autonomous, it should be noted that people will still want to keep hold of the manually operated car, both for pleasure and extreme conditions, which is where i believe emergency responders will fit in. Perhaps you could look into the reduction of skills that the AV revolution may lead to, where the driving licence becomes more rare and valuable in times of emergency.

    1. I agree that more thought should go into the ‘importance’ of a driving license in the case of fully-autonomous vehicles. If indeed there is no opportunity for passenger intervention, there would be no need to drive, and surely driving licenses would become obsolete?
      This leads to the question of age restrictions associated with travelling alone. Would there be an age restriction for travel in a fully autonomous vehicle, or could a group of 9 year old friends simply hop in a car and be taken to their destination!?

  4. A very interesting and informative read that discusses both sides of the arguments well.
    There is no question that AV is a disruptive technology that will lead to a less of jobs in other transportation industries, I don’t believe that’s a cause for concern because as mentioned jobs will be created elsewhere and the market will adapt.
    It is good to hear the benefits that AV can bring, as stress is one of the biggest current killers as discussed a reduction cannot be a bad thing.
    Whilst there are still obvious blockers to roads being fully occupied by autonomous vehicles I believe the positives outweigh the negatives and these are blockers we should and can overcome.

    1. Again I agree with this statement history has shown that new jobs will be created off the back on new technologies however these may be higher skilled and in few quantities. I think there is a global shift to this though so AV wont be the sole contributer. It is important to consider the vast benefits AV can bring to society and for me they outweigh the counter arguments.

  5. A really well written article. Some really refreshing arguments put forward aiming to consider the further implications of what seems inevitable to happen. Your solar storms point is a great example of this as I think many people sometimes forget the technology that these systems rely on can be so delicate, however, I disagree with you on public transport as I see them complementing each other really effectively.

    1. A valid point around solar storms if this would knock out cars how can we make these fully automated. Imagine one day without cars and the effect that would have on the economy and peoples confidence in the technologe. unless their is a way to mitigate against this kind of event I think there will be real issues with mass adoption.

  6. definitely agree that driverless cars are the way forward. but what about the future of our roads? will driverless cars decrease congestion and pollution? imo Musk’s idea of building a subterranean network of roads is both unfeasible and fails to solve the problem of congestion.

    whilst AI will also increas accessibility and mobility for people that were previously excluded, i agree with ScottRob and think the biggest change AI will make to our generation is vastly improving public transport services such as buses, where vehicles can locate people on an optimal transport route from A to Z passing through everything in between.

    1. Driverless cars are absolutely the future of our roads and buses will undoubtedly join them, maximising the opportunities this technological advancement has provided freeing up labour and human productivity.

      A short term consequence of easier access to automated and practical direct access to taxi services will i think increase congestion. This as you say needs to be met with a robust and effective public transport systems to compete, potentially maximising efficiency with AI and computer learning freeing up opportunities to locate potential passengers away from the conventional route. I hope TFL are investing in the future of this technology.

  7. I think this article raises some valid ethical points, and as this article details many of the points raised are in favour of a driverless future.

    I think some future points to consider would be that as the risks of manual compared to autonomous cars are so high, not just to the drivers but also to people who don’t choose to drive manual, would a further ethical decision need to be made around whether there should be a choice to drive manual? Does this need to have choice outweigh the added risk it may cause? Especially when we are talking about fatal incidents that may be the difference between life or death.

    1. The management of autonomous fleet behaviour around cars driven by erratic and or dangerous humans or even operating systems will be an incredibly interesting topic of future legislation and discussion.

      Will law-makers legislate to ensure functioning autonomous cars rat out drunk human drivers or compromised autonomous vehicles? I wouldn’t be surprised. This is practicality, time saving and safety enhancing but never forget law-makers will fully take advantage of the vast opportunities to utilise this continuous database of driver behaviour.

  8. A well-argued article for both sides. It will be interesting what part the media has to play in this and how it can be used to encourage the adoption of AV and draw away from the accidents that have happened in recent months. For me the biggest concern is the hacking threat not only remote access but a car by car basis. What if people can break in to the cars and mess with the computer is this right to put people into cars they don’t know if they are going to drive off a bridge and can’t do anything to stop it? Also, around the point about more people being able to drive, is this what we want? There is a big push to get emitting cars off the road at the moment and get people on to public transport. For me AV’s go against this and could have a massive negative impact on the environment.

  9. This article raises some interesting points. AVs clearly offer a massive potential benefit by taking the human element out of driving. Therefore removing accidents caused by drink driving or by the driver being distracted.

    However, as with any technology, there will always be weaknesses in the system and it will take time for the vehicles to be prooven in real-world environments. The point about the effect of self-driving cars on the insurance industry is not something that had occured to me before.

    I think that the biggest barrier to autonomous cars becoming the norm will be people’s desire to be in control of their own vehicle.

  10. A very interesting and engaging argument here, AVs obviously have the ethical implication of the lack of accountability that having drivers gives us at the moment, but conversely accidents will be considerably be reduced so this is an interesting debate.

    For me the economic implications on both public transport (and taxis) and insurance industry could change the way our economy is shaped. Whether this will be for the best is hard to tell.

  11. This an extremely well written article. Personally I believe that in an extreme situation the ‘driver’ of the AV car should be prioritised over the people at the other side of the choice, I believe this because the AV is unaware of factors that could’ve lead up to this situation. The AV would not have the ability to know if the people at risk had made a choice that put them at risk e.g. crossing at a red man or walking blindly across a road, although it could be argued if the people at risk didn’t put themselves there they should not be affected and it should be the ‘driver’ of the AV that should be punished. Overall I believe this article puts across very interesting and refreshing arguements.

    1. I tend to agree with this comment as the car should not be responsible for reading the pedestrians mind whilst it may be buried in their smart phone. I am all for AV as by just being able to get in your car on the way to work will increase productivity and have a positive impact on the global economy.

  12. Hello there!
    Coming across this article was a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one!
    There are many good arguments here for and against, with the secondary implications of such a behavioural shift on sectors such as insurance and public transport being of particular novelty to previous articles I’ve read. I must say that I do disagree with the latter part of the article concerning the seeming mass hysteria at the hands of a solar storm, mainly as an event of this magnitude would impact heavily electronic-dependent vehicles that are already ubiquitous today in much the same way. Also, the loss of GPS would only really impact destination tracking, as many diffferent sensors including RADAR and accelerometers are used in addition it GPS for general navigation. In such an event, a car would just pull over or stop.
    But all in all, a well thought out and well considered article! If fully-autonomous cars aren’t legal soon, we should all push to make it legal!

    1. Thanks for your comment Sheev! I agree with your thoughts on the solar storms not posing too much of an issue, but it is still an ecample of how complete reliance on the car could lead to issues if we have no way of controlling it ourselves. It will interesting to see how this is adopted and legislation adapts!

  13. I think this article raises good points on both sides of the argument. I think there is an availability bias at play when people consider AV. The shortcomings are over-reported by the media, as successful, safe drives do not make the news. If a utilitarian framework is applied, the increase in safety of AV is overwhelming.
    However, I also think JB3 makes a good point above. If we were to have more personal vehicles per person, the energy used and waste we produce would sky-rocket. I think the cost of this would have to be taken into account. Maybe a solution could be a rental service rather then private ownership. Cars could be called for when needed, similar to how Uber operates but with autonomy.

  14. Good article. I agree with many of the points made in the comments. However, I believe that it would not be possible for fully AV to work alongside other road users who are in control of their own vehicles. This is because this would put the drivers using AV at risk of the potentially irrational and selfish decision making of other road users. Therefore, the road networks must be either fully AV or not at all.

  15. Some interesting points have been made for both sides of the argument here!

    Until now I have never really thought about the extent of how fully-autonomous vehicles will affect society. I think that the point about having a more relaxing journey is very important; this would be sure to reduce stress during the busy rush hour, possibly improving an individuals mood and increasing their productivity when they arrive at work!

    Do you not think that incorporating an element of intervention during operation kind of ‘takes away’ the point of being autonomous?

    1. Hi Zoomer, cheers for your input. I agree with the comment about relaxation, there is nothing worse than a 3 mile commute taking half an hour!

      As a group we actually discussed how human intervention does indeed affect the definition of being ‘autonomous’. I actually think that if the ‘whole system’ goes down, there should be an option to drive home otherwise there would be a lot of stranded people! However I do not think that human intervention should be possible during operation, otherwise the ‘driver’ will have to concentrate anyway…this could possibly make the driver more ‘on edge’ as they would be constantly waiting to intervene, and won’t be able to relax!

  16. I would agree with Ldash that on of the biggest obstacles will be that people actually like to drive themselves and many will resist the push for AV. I also agree with earlier comments that having a mix of AV and manually driven cars on the same road could be a major H&S issue. Therefore an important question is how can AV be safely phased into use on our roads.
    In principal however, there is no reason why we shouldn’t trust the use of AV. After all we already rely heavily on similar technology, GPS, etc in many areas of life, including those where the consequences of errors could be catastrophic (eg aircraft, aerospace, military, etc). With the correct design development and testing there is no reason why AV shouldn’t be safe. Convincing the whole population to embrace AV might be the difficult part.

  17. Great article which raises strong points on both sides of the debate. I particularly found the argument for the benefits which AV will bring to those with a disability. AV seems like a positive step forward in terms of giving everyone the opportunity to use a car. However, I think it will take a lot of time and research to convince society that the benefits of AV out-weight it’s limitations.

  18. The ethical considerations of this topic are very complex! This may be the first practical application where Asimovs 3 Laws of Robotic come in to play. Specifically, it would be hard to avoid breaking the first law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

    If an AV robot has to make the decision which human to harm (in order to save other humans) then how would this be programmed in? What if the code was exploited to purposely kill? I imagine terrorist organisations would be interested in this.

  19. Great article.

    My initial concerns with AV reflected previous comments where, particularly during a transition period to fully autonomous, AV would be incapable of reacting to the erratic driving of those still in control of their vehicle due to its systematic nature.

    However, on consideration, many of these incidents would occur regardless of AV. Is it really fair to apportion blame to AV for reckless driving?

  20. Enjoyed the article, nicely written. However, it would have been nice to see a little more on the revolutionary effects that driverless vehicles would have on the workforce and possible solutions to the inevitable problems that will follow.

    As the son of a London cab driver, I’ve witnessed first hand the problems that tech travel apps (mainly uber) have caused traditional cabbies. This would undoubtedly pale in comparison with the effect that driverless vehicles would have on the whole auto-industry and beyond (driverless flights, anyone?).

    Considering that this could be the most seismic change to the labour market since the industrial revolution, I believe it crucial that governments pre-empt it with legislation so as to avoid a similar fissure in the workforce this time around. Companies will of course be crucial in facilitating this.

    Having said that, I do on the whole look forward to a future with driverless cars. The evidence to support their widespread use (safety, efficiency etc.) is impossible to deny.

  21. Good article!

    I like the points in favour for AVs, but maybe the completely driverless option is too far? It seems like the only benefit is added convenience, but from everyone elses concerns it doesnt seem worth it. It gives the option of not needing a qualified driver in the car, but no control might be difficult for people to adopt.

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