Self-Driving Vehicles Artwork

Relinquishing Our Autonomy: The Self-Driving Vehicle

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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.

Self-Driving Vehicles ArtworkFrom 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.


25 thoughts on “Relinquishing Our Autonomy: The Self-Driving Vehicle

  1. An interesting article. Could you develop both sides of the argument in terms of virtue ethics and care ethics too? Currently, the utilitarianism and duty ethics sides are both strong.

  2. Very interesting take on this issue, looking at autonomous cars has already shown faults in the systems, the recent Tesla crash for example, the car could have stopped itself, knew it was going to crash by warning the driver and still chose to do nothing. The Uber autonomous crash has the LIDAR company blaming the software and the software company blaming the LIDAR with no real closure for the casualty involved.
    The main ethical query is, is it right to enforce this on people who use the cars. Who would insure totally driverless cars, would anyone own a car or would a company run the cars like Uber. If so what happens to the tax from cars that the government gain where will the lost money be gained from. In the unfortunate event of a crash who is blamed and who would pay out for the crash. Autonomous cars have many areas where the development has happened so quickly the regulations and ethics haven’t been put in place or discussed as of yet.

  3. The article contained some interesting ideas but I found it a bit difficult to read. I had to really concentrate to follow the gist of the argument. I felt that the author was trying to be a bit too clever by quoting different theorists. The paragraph heading ‘Autonomous or Autonomess’ was a bit twee.

    A balanced argument was given but obvious points ignored. Autonomous cars might be good for the environment but how much would it cost to scrap every car in existence, build new ones and convert roads. The argument also assumes that no one is in a hurry to get anywhere and happy to take their time to get somewhere at a steady speed.

    I did however agree with the point made about the cars being vulnerable to hijack and that there is a big moral debate around use of autonomous cars.

    1. I do not agree with the legislation that would mean only autonomous vehicles should be used on the road. I think that humans should have some control over autonomous vehicles to prevent accidents, however, this may not be successful as humans may lose concentration as they believe the car is in control.

      I agree that cars cause great danger to people’s everyday life, so efforts to reduce this danger is a good thing. I also believe that driverless cars could have a positive impact on the environment due to constant driving speeds resulting in reduced fuel consumption.

      A strength of this article is that it covers both the pros and cons of autonomous cars from multiple view points (moral, environmental, financial and ethical). The writer’s opinion on autonomous cars is not expressed throughout the article which gives the reader the opportunity to make up their mind on autonomous cars.

      I found the ethical dilemma relating to emergency situations very interesting. It raises the question of what value do you put on individual human lives?

      The article is well laid out and I like that it begins with a brief overview of the general argument. The argument is easy to follow as it starts with the benefits of self driving cars before it moves on to raise the moral and ethical issues. The writer does not have a definitive opinion on self driving cars but does raise multiple debates in approaching the topic which gives the reader the opportunity to make their own judgment.

      There is the potential for errors in autonomous cars due to them being controlled by artificial intelligence systems. For example, one car with an error could misjudge the position of another car at a junction and cause an accident, potentially resulting in death or injury.

    2. Yes Barbara I agree, the article was difficult to read. Firstly, they mention Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism without giving an explanation as to what they are, this is a blog right? Secondly, I feel that morality is subjective and therefore, the authors should have taken that into consideration before they chose to employ ‘utilitarianism’ and Kantian ethics in their article.

  4. A really well written article. However, I’d disagree with the notion that driverless cars are going to solve all of the roads problems, as the article implies.

    For example: “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” – I don’t think that’s true. What about when road maintenance is taking place and a two-lane road has a lane shut? When the cars merge into the single lane there will definitely be some sort of traffic jam.

    Ethically, I think autonomous cars cause more problems than they do solutions. You mention in emergency situations whether the software aims to allow the greatest number of people to survive, even if it meant killing the driver. This is just so many lawsuits waiting to happen and to be honest I don’t think it’s worth it.

    Before autonomous cars can be introduced, a solution would need to be reached in regards to this, as you say. The way that paragraph is written makes it sounds like it will be an easy sit-down at the table for half an hour job, when really this solution will be nigh impossible to reach. So many people will have different opinions on this, especially as this concerns essentially putting human life in control of a machine, that I can’t ever see a solution being reached.

  5. The article is well written and the benefits of driverless vehicles are hard to argue with. The moral dilemma is very interesting and who is responsible for the decision a driverless vehicle makes in safety critical situations is a challenge.

    One issue is how the transition from our current “driver” car dominated market will shift toward increasing autonomy. How do you optimise the infrastructure for autonomy (traffic systems, roads, etc…) whilst ensuring “driver” can still operate safely? How do you phase out “driver” cars without forcing consumers to purchase new technology they may not be capable of affording?

    These questions, in addition to the complexity both morally and technologically make me think an optimal solution for truly driverless vehicles is a long way off yet!

  6. A neat and tidy skirmish into one of many issues we are confronting with rapid technological change. Maybe a bit high-level and trying to touch on many issues, but that’s forgivable given that’s all that can be reasonably achieved in a short article.

    But, having said that, I would like to have seen a wider view taken of the real world that the manufacturers inhabit. The makers of these vehicles exist in a capitalist profit motivated world, rarely are these entities seen to behave morally unless they feel the benefit in their deep pockets. One of the reasons why such decisions are taken via legislation

    It is rare that morals, values and ideologies exist in a vacuum. Such discussions are fun and thought provoking but ultimately must also be blended into the real world. I would have liked to have seen this balance questioned here. I don’t think it weakens the discussion but gives it a richer perspective.

  7. An interesting article on a subject which is becoming more and more relevant as technology develops. The many benefits mentioned of driverless vehicles are appealing to a person who drives to work everyday and constantly has to concentrate with the roads full of people who make questionable decisions. The idea of everyone being under control of the same system would inevitably keep everyone following the same laws, speed limits and ultimately reduce the casualties cause on roads.
    However, an issue with the subject, which has been touched on, would be the reduced concentration of the drivers. So many crashes are caused by people not concentrating, a lot of the time on mobile phones, if the car still relies on the human for some intervention at some point, this would still require the concentration of the occupants? When it actually came to it, would a humans reactions be fast enough, if they’re even concentrating at all. Another issue that jumps out would be the freedom to choose, which could be detrimental to this idea as not all people may want to be involved or buy a new car, which could then make the autonomous cars less effective for their desired purpose as not all cars would be programmed and still have human drivers. Following the Uber test collision, if tests did continue and were successful, to make it successful on a large scale, would laws need to be changed to ensure that everyone would be using autonomous cars and phase out normal cars? This technology would surely also prove quite expensive to manufacture, so would it be a suitable idea if only the rich could afford these cars?
    On the ethical decisions side, if the cars were to be programmed under utilitarianism, would there be a way to override this mechanical decision, or would the occupant just have to accept that if there are more people in the other car then they have no choice but to give up their life? Also, if the accident is not their fault, whether the other vehicle is not an autonomous or not, the car would decide their fate anyway?
    A very thought provoking article and an easy read.

  8. A really interesting, well written article regarding a developing area that will no doubt be subject to more prominent arguments as the technology continues to improve.

    The article states good cases for both sides of the argument. Although it might be worth to looking into alternative compromises. For example, in the longer term it may be more economically viable to improve the public transport system as the cost of implementing an autonomous vehicle system would be huge. A significantly improved network system would encourage more people to travel safely whilst still enabling others to drive if they wish. As many people currently don’t use public transport due to the inadequacy of the service.

  9. Interesting read, I think that the decisions made by car manufacturers will greatly determine the progression of the autonomous vehicle. Unfortunately for those passionate about the growth of the autonomous vehicle market, many car manufacturers are currently ver wary about the effect autonomous vehicles will have on their sales. This is due to the fact that for car developers the main selling points of their vehicles are those relating to performance and this is the area at which manufacturers in the car industry compete with one another most fiercely. If motorists are willing to purchase an autonomous vehicle however, their interest in the performance of the car which they’re buying is diminished and this scares manufacturers.

    I think before manufacturers have a grasp of how to compete in a market of autonomous vehicles developments in this technology will be limited.

  10. Yeh, it would be interesting to see how the traffic laws will be re-defined for roads with only driverless cars. The whole process involved for this is going to take a lot of work to get right. Also unlike how current traffic laws have been developed over a long period of time as the number of vehicles on the road have kept increasing, the new laws would have to be put in place with already a high number of people on the roads. If they’re not considered properly they could have some pretty devastating effects.

    Also how will the law regarding liability in accidents be defined, would the owner of the autonomous vehicle be liable in an accident, or the manufacturer. Probably as much to think about in terms of the law as that of the technology in its own right.

  11. This is a fascinating article which raises arguments at various levels.  

    In theory, autonomous vehicles are a wonderful concept.  If their invention could have coincided with the creation of the internal combustion engine, driving would have been a far safer pursuit because the human interaction element would have been removed from the outset.  Human misjudgement and error are inherent in all drivers, from the least to the most experienced. The problem is that many drivers can be oblivious to their potential for error or miscalculation.

    It would seem that while both autonomous and human operated cars are allowed to drive on the same roads at the same time, the inherent possibility for accidents leading to damage and death will probably increase, with legal responsibility being a particularly difficult area to address, as another commentator has mentioned.  Also, autonomous vehicles are fundamentally functioning through a set of mathematical possibilities and interactions which attempt to map the spectrum of human reaction, non-reaction or over-reaction to circumstances which happen in rapid succession, usually at the least expected moments. Is this in itself morally or ethically acceptable?

    A moral point which is not raised in the paper is one which centres on individual choice.  There are many drivers on the UK’s roads who value their freedom to drive their cars for whatever purpose, for whatever distance and at whatever time of day or night they choose.  They simply would not willing surrender what they would rightly perceive as their moral right so to do.

    Were the decision made to implement the use of autonomous cars, how would the production of fleets of roughly identical vehicles impact on the car industry and its component suppliers in the UK and beyond?  Could the resultant disruption or dismantling of many jobs and national income streams be justified, particularly when autonomous car production would also mean scrappage of conventional cars and roads at huge cost to the environment?  Car ownership in the UK is endemic and aspirational, as many seek to express their financial/career success through their choice of vehicle. At one level, car ownership in the UK is an outward marker of societal and class acceptance.

    The London Underground network has driverless trains across a limited area of its track system.  Could autonomous vehicle use could be limited in a similar way? For instance, such use could be pursued through the collaboration and integration of the current growing number of car-sharing organisations, allowing use of such vehicles solely on specific dedicated roads for journeys between and across cities, with particular focus on major conurbations such as Manchester, Birmingham, London, and the major South Yorkshire cities.

  12. Good summary of a lot of the points to consider around the ethics of autonomous vehicles. I think that while some of the possible benefits of self driving vehicles are overstated here (e.g. elimination of all traffic jams), I agree with the argument that purchasing an autonomous vehicle could become a societal norm due to the ultimate significant safety improvements. The question is how do we get to that point, tackling the ethical questions as a society (for example, as raised in the article, how should we think about the decision criteria used by vehicles in minimising harm?), rather than leaving the questions to be answered purely by tech companies driven by a profit motive. Articles such as this are important in furthering this discussion, as the framework for how we think about the future of human-machine interaction is yet to be defined.

  13. This is a well balanced article which raises a range of benefits and dilemmas posed by the advent of autonomous vehicles.

    There are powerful arguments in favour of autonomous vehicles, and I am particularly interested in the environmental ones: the ability to manage resources better and to limit further damage to our planet. Surely we all have a duty to embrace any advances in technology that will benefit future generations? As a society we would do no better than to consider the use of this technology to improve our public transport systems first and foremost and not just in large cities. It would be fabulous to conceive of a time in the future when an individual no longer needed to own a car personally but could hop into an autonomous, shared taxi at the end of the street for journeys far and wide. The idea of an efficient road network with no congestion is hugely appealing, particularly when one is sitting in a huge traffic jam caused by current improvements to our motorway system.

    I was also impressed by the debate around vehicle manufacturers’ social, moral and ethical responsibilities when developing this new technology versus the need for legislation. There is so much more to consider and it is good to see that our engineers of the near future are involved in debates about new technologies from an ethical standpoint.

  14. One of the major problems of the comprehensive system being proposed in the article, which assumes that all the existing vehicles are replaced with autonomous vehicles coupled with major infrastructure changes at a stroke, is the very substantial cost, as they would , almost certainly, have to be electric vehicles. It would be retrograde if the vehicles were powered by internal combustion engines (unless possibly they had hydrogen as the fuel – which may have to be investigated as an alternative for electric cars where it is not possible to provide charging points – for example in big cities where people have to rely on on-street parking) . Would there be the capacity to produce all these vehicles and then store them so that they are all placed on the roads at the same time? Who would pay for them and the infrastructure changes? How would people who have perfectly serviceable non-autonomous cars be compensated if it was no longer legal to use them? If they were not compensated that would be tantamount to theft – if there were no compensation paid it would be equitable that there be a long run off period for non-autonomous vehicles.
    Is the proposal the best use of money? It would save lives – assuming that the technology works perfectly (and we know that technology is fallible – witness the TSB software upgrade debacle) and is not hackable. There would probably be environmental benefits going forward, but the scrappage of all the existing perfectly serviceable vehicles would not be environmentally friendly. In terms of saving lives would the money be better spent on other things, such as medical research, improved social care, investment in less developed countries, etc? Another area into which money could be invested, which could reduce the need for travel, is improved virtual reality made available at lower cost so as to make virtual meetings more like those where all the participants are physically gathered together in the one place.
    More research could be carried out into making conventional vehicles safer, including and making technology such as Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) mandatory in new vehicles. This would reduce the risk of death and injury, but at rather less cost than fully autonomous vehicles.

  15. Despite the benefits of a completely autonomous traffic system the challenges that will be presented during the switch over will be difficult to manage and could also limit the mobility of the less wealthy should conventional cars be banned from the road.

  16. Certainly an interesting read. The arguments made in favour of autonomous vehicles are compelling, especially the statistics regarding the number of crashes attributed to human error. However, I have to say that the risk of hacking and the like does make the idea much less appealing, especially considering how frequently even the most advanced systems seem to be broken into these days. Perhaps a healthy medium between autonomous and manually driven is what is called for.

  17. A very topical article given that technology has reached the stage that there is the realistic prospect of such vehicles becoming commercially viable in the foreseeable future.

    I was pleased that the article explored some of the ethical implications of such technology; so often discussion revolves around the wonder of the new technologies and how they can supposedly liberate us in our daily lives. In reality the technology presents an insight into a dark and futuristic world in that either the human race will pass over decision making to an amoral and unpredictable software or else the software could be exploited by sections of society for their, rather than society’s benefit.

    A debate is needed to highlight and discuss the implications of AI; should responsibility for the ethics underpinning be passed to governments or international organisations equivalent to those such as the UN, should programmers commit to an oath along the lines of the Hippocratic oath sworn by doctors etc?

    Perhaps we should have this debate before we reach the point that AI decides that we do not need to.

  18. I agree that autonomous cars can be a safer option in the future. Personally, I think driving is more acceptable in current society because when accidents happen it is ourselves to blame, but when an accident occurs due to autonomous cars, it is the car developers and the technology that gets the blame. Hence I agree that it is the society’s decision, because then whatever the consequences, it is an agreed decision that was made.

  19. This article considers how and why, but something to consider is who benefit and who suffers from self driving vehicles.

    The elderly population would benefit greatly, many accidents are caused by elder drivers due to circumstances such as poor eye sight and slow reactions. Some of the very elderly are confined to their homes because they lack the ability to get drive themselves. Self driving cars could safely transport this growing population around, reducing road accidents and improving the mental and social health of our aging population by reducing loneliness .

    In a similar vein, those with health issues, be it physical or mental health problems are potentially greatly served by the implementation of automatic vehicles. Once again reducing the risk of accidents by taking the control out of human hands and again greatly expanding the lives of those whom find travel difficult. These are positive outcomes.

    However it is important to think of the ethical consequences for our actions. If we ban human driven vehicles many people will lose their jobs. Taxis, freight, buses – the list goes on. Not only those whom operate the vehicles but all the other industries that go with our current transport systems. By solving one set of issues we could cause several more.

  20. The benefits of autonomous vehicles are well argued here and I definitely see it as the future of transport.

    For me though the biggest dilemma as discussed is in the event that a choice needs to be made by the software to kill the driver or pedestrians how can we ethically allow a computer to make this decision and who would be to blame? The driver who should of been overseeing the automated driving or the software and the therefore the manufacturer. Every situation would be different and I feel the human emotion as argued by Hume would rule in this situation and something I don’t feel a computer can perform such a task.

  21. An interesting article.
    In a transforming world i think that autonomous cars are the future and i feel that it would be a beneficial step forward to introduce them. Some issues may be that pedestrians and cars would need to be separated, to ensure the safety of both the drivers and the public. However, due to the nature of the human, there would be resistance against change. There would also be issues with people who do not agree with the car making the ethically right decision in emergency situations, as this would mean it would take away their human choice.
    I think this issue would need a lot more research and debate.

  22. Interesting topical debate and a lot of unanswered questions.
    Autonomous vehicles are the way of the future in our environmentally challenged world, however, introducing them would be difficult to integrate onto our roads. Everyone having to replace their cars would be costly, and may create a divide between the wealthier and poor.
    I am personally concerned that the decisions made are left to a computer, and would rather have drivers partially in control. I do not believe it is ethically moral to have programmed software making a humane decision, which normally would include human emotion.
    I think this subject matter requires a lot more debate.

  23. The article contains points I had not considered. Reflecting on my driving behaviour, I now see how autonomous vehicles have the potential to reduce their environmental impact.

    Some key points, such as the cost and feasibility of altering our current roads was not mentioned and I would have liked to have seen some more figures to back up statements.

    My personal belief is that autonomy is a good thing for our society, improving the mobility of the disabled.

    Would it be possible to retrofit old cars rather than purchasing new cars?

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