Self Driving Cars Are Not “Five Years Away.”
John Battelle
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I think the importance of the trolley problem is overstated. The premise is that the car will drive into a situation where it may be forced to make this choice (humans do this all the time, that’s why it seems so plausible to us, and we invent ways to deflect blame, using words like “jaywalking” and “dart”). But, “a bunch of kids playing Pokemon”? Either the car sees them near the road and slows down because they are kids, or it cannot see them near the road, and it slows down because it cannot see what might stray into its stopping distance. Many humans don’t do this, and especially in places like Boston, we design roads that make it difficult to both drive safely and quickly. Then when something goes wrong, we declare it an “accident”, despite the fact that it was preventable by the simple rule of not driving faster than your can see and stop.

I ride a bike a lot. One thing you learn after riding a bike for a few decades is that whether the crash is your fault or someone else’s, it hurts. I sometimes ride my bike down an unlit multi-use path, and I *do* see ninja pedestrians in front of me with my mighty 300-lumens of headlight (about 1/7 of a pair of car headlights), because pretending that I can’t see eventually hurts. You can see people by the reflective bits on their shoes, or see the reflection from the eyeballs of the dog they might be walking, or from the light of their cell phone. In daylight, anytime there’s more than three children or even three dogs near my path, I slow way down. It would be wrong to run into someone’s kids, and it would also probably hurt.

Riding my bicycle, I’ll never have the trolley problem, because I’ll always reduce my speed enough to prevent it from arising (that, at least, is my plan, though I’m aware that I’m fallible. But I’m also aware that my brain and my training are finite, and it is better to focus my limited human abilities on strategic prevention than on tactical recovery). Lest you think this inevitably leads to slow travel, note that my rush-hour bicycle commute is reliably faster than the same trip by car; children playing Pokemon near a road at rush hour is not so common that applying this rule slows me much.

I do expect that humans will initially be quite annoyed with self-driving cars, precisely because they will often do that thing which driving humans don’t do, which is to slow down when necessary to ensure safety. Ideally the car will be equipped with some way of distracting its passengers away from being back-seat drivers.

There’s a place for the trolley problem, but it is minor, and any company that declares that their intent is for their car drive into a pedestrian to save its “driver” had better plan to have that problem never actually occur, because if they ever do, there will be a civil suit, and the auto manufacturer will lose.

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