Autonomous cars, driverless cars, self driving cars or whatever you choose to call them, they’re here and here to stay. Not only are they here to stay, they’re here to take the controls from you and never give them back.
Driverless cars are nothing new, with some of the first studies done way back in the 1920s and the first promising breakthrough coming in Japan in 1977. The Tsukuba Mechanical Engineering Laboratory created a vehicle that was able to track the white lane markers on the road using two onboard cameras. The car could travel at speeds up to 20 miles per hour and stay reliably in its own lane.
However, it is within the last decade or so that autonomous vehicles have truly hit their stride. With brands such as Google’s Waymo, Tesla, BMW, GM, Audi and Mercedes pioneering new technologies, self driving cars have become commonplace in today’s society. In the nine year history of Waymo, they have accumulated over five million driverless miles and over five billion miles in computer simulators. They even look to launch a widespread driverless taxi program later this year.
We are on the brink of world altering technology finding its way into every driveway around the world. A scenario exactly like this has played out before in our society, back in 1908 when the Ford Model T entered production.
You see, many people believe the Model T to be the first automobile in history. However, the first automobile was actually produced back in 1769 by a man named Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot. Throughout the 1800’s many breakthroughs in the industry took place, such as the development of the first hydrogen powered car, the first internal combustion engine and the first electric car. All of this culminated in 1885 when a man by the name of Karl Benz, yes that Benz, developed the world’s first production automobile known as the Benz Patent-Motorwagen. It was considered to be the first due to the fact that a few copies were produced and sold to customers, albeit at extremely high prices.
A few decades later, Henry Ford started production on the Model T. An affordable vehicle for the masses. A car that was in production for nearly two decades with 15 million rolling off the production line. At the time, a horse drawn carriage was the main means of transportation for the world. The Model T however single handedly ended the horses reign as the standard of transportation thanks to its many conveniences.
When the vehicle launched in 1908 it retailed for $825 or $22,471 in equivalent money today. Over the course of the vehicles lifespan, the costs dropped dramatically due to the efficiency of the assembly line as well as Henry Ford’s strict and shrewd business practices. He was once quoted as saying the customer “can have any color as long as it’s black”. By 1925 the car retailed for $260 or $3,628 in today’s money.
You see, autonomous cars are about to redefine the transportation world just as the Model T did over a century ago. They have the ability to reduce the cost of general transportation infrastructure, increase road safety, increase mobility for everyone, including children, the elderly and the disabled. They also have the ability to increase traffic flow which would decrease commute times while also lowering fuel consumption. However, one of the biggest upsides to the driverless future is simply the luxury of no longer having to spend your time driving. You will have the ability to spend your time on other tasks while enroute to your destination. Driving will become a past time, the same way horseback riding became a hobby for tens of millions around the world.
The benefits and conveniences of autonomous cars are numerous and easy to understand. However, there is one big question that must be asked. When presented with a situation in which an accident is likely to occur, how does the car decide who is the one to suffer the unimaginable consequences and should the car even be the one making these decisions?
This decision making process is known as the “trolley problem”. It is a philosophical experiment based upon morality of humans. The difference here however, is that no human intervention is present. An autonomous vehicle is capable of running millions of scenarios in milliseconds, meaning in theory it should be capable of coming to the best decision possible for every situation.
The question on whether or not the vehicle should be the one making this decision in the first place is much more difficult one to answer. Should humans have a say in the actions their vehicle takes when presented with such a situation or should it be left 100% to computer calculation?
You may be asking, how would a human have a say in such a scenario anyway? One way of accomplishing this would be to have the vehicle owner complete a morality test. A test that would influence the vehicles program and decision making enough to mimic the decision making process of the vehicles owner/driver.
A great site to test your own morality and decision making process is the Moral Machine, created by Scalable Cooperation at the MIT Media Lab. The site presents you with a number of questions, each posing two scenarios on the occurrence of a car accident. You must come to a decision on which group of individuals is the one who must suffer the ultimate consequence.
My conclusion after completing the survey is that I simply never want to be in a real life scenario where I have to make such a decision. In my opinion, I would want the vehicle to process all the millions of scenarios in the blink of an eye and complete the action in which it deems to be the least destructive. Now the only question remains is, who is at fault? Is it me, the car manufacturer, the autonomous code programmers, or the other party that was involved in the accident.
The way I see it, if I have no say in the scenario and the manufacturer employs the autonomous programmer, it is the manufacturer who should be deemed responsible. The sad realization you may have come to while reading this piece, is that there are people in this world who are writing programs and lines of code that must decide whether you live or you die. Suddenly, programmers have become a judge, jury, and executioner.