On readiness for driverless cars
Applying game theory around life-changing decisions is a big part of what developing an autonomous car is all about. Elon Musk, criticizing a competitor of the Tesla, said that the difference between getting the computer vision from 99% to 100% is a matter of life and death.
Recently there have been some that have questioned whether the world is ready for driverless vehicles. The basis of many nay-sayers is around the “Trolley problem” and how “thinking cars” will follow a given logic. I think the bigger point is missed in some people’s assessment.
The general form of the problem is this: There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?
What many point out is that the car, given that it is programmed by a auto manufacturing company, might skew towards choosing the path which would cause the least harm to the driver, regardless of the number of fatalities incurred by it’s path. This might be true, certainly without regulation — what car company would want to sell someone a car with the slogan “keeping the streets safe and the passengers questionably safe”? So implied here is that the autonomous self driving car will always err on the side of passenger and diver safety.
However, this idea misses a bit of probability theory. The alternative to having this technology is that humans continue to operate vehicles. And while a human might more often than not, in a bad situation, chose to hurt themselves as a driver than a street full of school children, these incidents are rare — very rare. What is less rare are the number of accidents where many people are hurt due to driver error or driver impairment.
I’ll agree that the trolley problem is a political football, but its certainly a better solution than having humans operate cars — if you want to save lives.
There are certainly other issues with the driverless car ecosystem that we have to sort out, but I think we’re ready. At least I am.