Self-driving Cars: A 21st Century Utopia?!

“The all new self-driving car allows you to sip on your morning coffee, edit Instagram posts and even nap whilst your car chauffeurs you to work, quickly, conveniently and carefree. This is your commute, reinvented.”

Could this be the future of car advertising, self-driving cars suggest… maybe.

Self-driving cars are defined as autonomous vehicles that are capable of sensing its environment and navigating without input. Various companies are investing and researching into the prospect of self-driving cars as they believe that a world of autonomous cars would result in a safer world, reducing the 90% of driver error related deaths annually to zero. However, the consequences of handing over the control from our hands to a machine is a shift that society may not be ready for, just yet.

One of the main concerns with self-driving cars is the level of safety that they can offer versus that with a human driver. Studies have shown that up to 75% of people believe that they are personally a better driver than a computer would be. This single question addresses a major factor that needs to be overcome before self-driving cars can be a widespread reality: safety. Due to this lack of confidence by the public, 62% of people claimed that they would never consider buying a self-driving car. However, even at this birth-stage of self-driving cars, Google have reported that their autonomous cars are already safer than human drivers, based on frequency of crashes/requirement of human input. Claims have been made that these autonomous vehicles by Google give a smoother and safer ride than professional drivers. Google’s self-driving vehicles provided consistently smoother acceleration, and were better at maintaining a safe distance behind the car in front versus a human driver. It seems that people may be ignorant to the true capabilities of these driver-less cars. After all, people are willing to travel on self-driving tube-systems, planes flying with autopilot and the new Heathrow Airport Pod so is it just a matter of time before they accept self-driving cars?

A further benefit of these self-driving vehicles is that data acquired by the car can be used in the event of a collision to prove the true events leading up to an accident — making the claim and justice system fairer than it has ever been before. It is clear then that self-driving cars have the capability to do what they claim: provide an effortless, fast, reliable and comfortable drive. However, the biggest challenge so far may be convincing the general public of this.

A new challenge of the self-driving car to society would be the question who is to blame for crashes whilst the car was in self-driving mode: the car manufacturer, software programmer or the driver? This issue is a recurring topic for governments and lawyers. Many companies such as Google and Volvo have publicly announced that they will accept responsible for the crashes that their cars cause whilst in self-driving modes. However, lawsuits have shown that rarely the self-driving car manufacturers actually have to pay out. An example of this has been shown by Tesla. A ‘driver’ of a Tesla autonomous cars was involved in a fatal accident whilst it was in self-driving mode. However, as the driver was watching a film (Harry Potter in fact) and not paying attention to the road, he was not in an alert position with his hands on the steering wheel ready to take over driving. The reason for this is due to the requirement of driver input in the highly unlikely event of the cars systems failing (less than one intervention per 110,000 miles for Google). This is a responsibility of the ‘driver’ of a self-driving car and is clearly stated in the terms and conditions of buying a Tesla self-driving car. Tesla, therefore, had no liability for this accident.

Moral and Ethical decision making software of self-driving cars is becoming an increasingly philosophical debate. When driving there are times when decisions need to be made in order to protect yourself or others. An example would include whether to swerve around a person that jumped into the road and potentially crashing into an oncoming car or to collide with the pedestrian and potentially save yours and your family’s life and the lives of those in the oncoming car. These types of problems are called, trolley problems and they raise highly complex moral questions on the value of one life over another. More moral dilemmas are raised in the video below. These debates are the direct consequence of shifting the control of moral decision making from human brains to a brainless machine.

One area where autonomous vehicles could have a real benefit would be in the ‘Internet of Things’. We are currently in the early stages of ‘smart cities’. Milton Keynes has led this initiative in the UK, collecting traffic data from buses, apps and from road works to map how people move around in the city. This data is highly valuable for planning for the future in order to develop more efficient transport infrastructure. In this situation, autonomous cars would thrive, constantly sharing information with traffic networks, allowing parking spaces to be found before the car has reached them, allowing traffic information to be processed and diverting traffic in the most optimal way to ensure that all people are having the most efficient journey possible. The potential for smart cities to make our transport lives easier is huge. However, a fully digitally connected city that relies on big data is vulnerable to cyber attacks. The consequence of this on a society reliant on digital technologies to run smoothly would be unimaginable to us today.

Despite concerns of safety that self-driving cars arise they offer a real potential to make our roads safer and more efficient, my final question I would like to ask; Is the greatest moral dilemma we currently face concerning the self-driving car the fact we are keeping them off the roads due to our social reservations preventing the saving of millions of lives every year as a result of driver errors?

Following completing the digital society module at The University of Manchester I have been reflecting on what I have learnt and experienced as a result. I have thoroughly enjoyed the module and have embraced the challenge of tackling the implications of living in an increasingly digital world. This challenge has allowed me to think critically about problems that I do not address in my biology studies. I have benefited from learning how to write for an alternative audience to my peers and university academics, through the use of medium. By posting publicly online, the importance of using the creative commons for media has been highlighted to me. These skills will be something I can apply to any further work that I may publish.

The module content has been interesting and insightful into new technologies and their potential to influence and enhance our lives. Two times this has been particularly obvious to me was during DigiLab and when we studied how companies such as google target ‘micro-moments’. DigiLab allowed me to experience virtual and augumented reality headsets. Since this experience I have been really interested and intrigued how these technologies could be used in society for good as well as bad, and how they could enhance my life in particular. This experience has made me very sceptical of the usefulness of the technologies as they may disconnect our lives from real life. However, since class discussions I have been able to see that they could be beneficial to those who are not as able to travel and experience things as most of us are. This has also opened my eyes to the fact digital technologies should be designed to be accessible and useful to all to ensure that the digital divide doesn’t increase. The study of ‘mirco-moments’ has opened my eyes to the way we are targeted by companies to buy their products through advertising pathways and learning from our searches and purchases. This experience has made me more wary when buying things, I question whether I genuinely need the product or have I been convinced I need it.

The course has been important for me to realise that I must think more about my online presence that may be seen by my future employers and colleges. I have been challenged to think about where digital technology could be integrated into my life to enhance it. Before the course I have been very sceptical of its influence on my life and even since completing the course, I don’t feel that my life would be hugely improved directly by new digital technology. However as a result of studying this course, I will be more open to trying new digital technologies in the future and consider the wider impact of these products on our lives.

I feel that Digital society module is very relevant to today’s society. The focus on ethical implications of digital technologies have allowed the critical analysis of their purpose and consequences on the world we live in.