Autonomous vehicles are claimed to be much safer and more efficient than conventionally operated cars, but are the manufacturers fully considering the morality of a method of transport that promotes inattentiveness, can be remotely hacked, and may decide to kill the occupants?
An autonomous future
In the future, legislation could mean that autonomous vehicles would be used exclusively on all road networks. If this was to be the case, then the inefficiencies associated with manual vehicle control could be eliminated, as all traffic could be controlled by an artificial intelligence system, fed with sensory data taken from every vehicle on the road. This system has the potential to eliminate the occurrence of both collisions and traffic jams on the roads as each vehicle would be aware of the exact position and speed of all other vehicles on the road.
In terms of many people’s health and safety, driving a car is one of the most dangerous aspects of many people’s day to day lives. For pedestrians, crossing the road can poses a significant risk and the adoption of a complete driverless road network could increase the safety of every road user. Not only does a vehicle controlled by artificial intelligence eliminate the dangers associated with driver error, but is potentially more powerful at recognizing hazards than a human driver .
A highway filed with exclusively autonomous vehicles will never experience any traffic jams as all of the causes of traffic congestion can be solved by the driver-less vehicle. Traffic lights at junctions and roundabouts could both be replaced by intersections at which vehicles no longer need to stop for, but instead make adjustments to their speed to pass by one another, without a collision. This has the benefit of reducing peoples journey times, which could have a profound effect on emergency services, goods distribution, commuters and overall public satisfaction.
Improvements in road network efficiency could have striking benefits on the energy efficiency of vehicles using the roads. In a future where electric vehicles may fill smart highways, the use of driverless vehicles would mean that the energy requirements of the world’s transport network could be vastly reduced. Should the internal combustion engine still be relevant, fuel consumption and vehicle emissions per mile travelled would be reduced and this would have significant benefits in terms of reducing the damage to the planet inflicted by motor-vehicles.
From an ethical standpoint, the purchase of an autonomous vehicle could be viewed as an environmentally and socially conscious decision, similar to the purchase of an electric vehicle, or as a decision made to improve safety at the wheel. Should autonomous vehicles become the societal norm, the purchase of such a vehicle could align with both utilitarian and Kantian theory. The decision to purchase an autonomous vehicle could be seen as a societal duty (similar to the modern trend in purchasing hybrid or electric cars) and thus morally right according to Kantian ethics. The consequences of such a purchase represent utilitarian thinking, as the technology could provide numerous environmental and social benefits and potentially a more pleasurable experience for the public. However, there is still doubt among many about the implementation of these vehicles and the transition to completely driverless roads.
Autonomous or autonomess
With 94% of car crashes attributed to human error, autonomous vehicles in theory can reduce the risk of crashes by shifting control from drivers to designers. The current autopilot systems are certainly much more consistent than the human counterparts, but they are definitely not perfect, and this is known by manufacturers. Is the desire to secure a large chunk of the market putting the prosperity of the business above the moral decision to provide a product that is safe?
Current autopilot controls are not fully capable of functioning without human intervention. Recent research has shown that drivers get lulled into a false sense of security, placing too much trust in an imperfect system which has resulted in crashes; Tesla’s autopilot experienced a repeatable glitch that causes the car to veer into the guardrail when approaching the crest of a hill resulting in a crash.
The public are, overall, very impressionable, and it is immoral for companies to promote autonomous vehicles as truly driverless when in fact human interaction will be necessary to avoid certain incidents. Further to this, the risk of hacking of the autopilot system is a very real issue, with cars already being targeted. Companies need to consider whether it is moral to allow for the possibility that vehicles could be remotely overridden and used for means that would not have been possible if autonomy did not exist.
Not only is the presence of software in a vehicle that could potentially be hacked a subject for moral debate, but the decisions that the software needs to make in an emergency situation are also an ethical dilemma. The choice of the software in an emergency becomes one of either utilitarianism or deontology. The utilitarian option would lead to the greatest number of people surviving a crash as possible. This produces the greatest good to the greatest number of people, even if this results in the death of the driver. Deontology would view this action as unacceptable as consciously choosing to kill the driver is murder, and this system of ethics believes that certain acts are always wrong.
The introduction of autonomous vehicles would therefore require a satisfactory solution to this highly complex and subjective debate. A utilitarianism approach would be the simplest to employ as it is a just a case of determining the minimum number of deaths; however the introduction of autonomous cars may be met with stiff opposition if they are likely to choose to kill their occupants. On the other hand, the decision to save the driver in all circumstances may not always be the morally suitable decision, or indeed the legally suitable decision, as you cannot make a decision in favour of one person over another.