I recently had a conversation about self-driving cars. The discussion, which quickly divulged into the advantages of such a technology, caused me to ponder my initial skepticism regarding such an invention and why I am inclined to oppose the fast introduction of autonomous vehicles on the road.
In order to understand a bit about my caution regarding cars, I should admit this: as far as drivers go, you can’t get much worse than myself. One of my least cultivated intelligences is visual-spatial and my default when performing most monotonous tasks is to get lost in my imagination. Furthermore, I find the prospect of conducting a fast object alongside many other individuals performing the same task whose traits and personalities I am unaware of remarkably dangerous; and an anxious, unconfident, unexperienced, apt to daydream driver is a liable combination for a traffic incident. Essentially, the only manner in which I could be a worse driver would be if- in conjunction with the above attributes- I was also a reckless, careless, impulsive, and incautious individual.
But regardless of my unease with motorized vehicles, I place an extreme amount of subconscious trust in myself and others on a daily basis driving, bicycling, and being a pedestrian in the roadway. I do get into cars with drivers I don’t know at times, I do drive myself when I visit my hometown, and I do cross streets brazenly in New York, acting on the belief that the driver will be rested, sober, and undistracted, as well as heed traffic signals and have an inherent respect for the value of their lives and freedom, and the lives and freedom of those around them.
However, I wouldn’t necessarily put the same trust in a self-driving car, as I don’t have experience or record of their driving capacity. Moreover, a self-driving car will not feel (at least to the same extent) the remorse, pain, and fear of the life-changing retributive consequences that can occur in the death or mutilation of a living being, and nor does it have the experience of reacting to situations in a non-programmatic state (which can be remarkably faulty, as humanity does not operate in a perfectly linear manner) or the deeply ingrained fusion of experience, biology, emotion, and intellectual reasoning that allows humans to make immediate decisions in chaotic environments in a manner that has proven to be astonishingly reliable.
Yet it is true that one of our most powerful attributes- our emotional and biological attributes- can also be one of our most severe drawbacks. It’s why driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, in a sleep deprived state, while distracted with music, conversation, mobile devices, electronics, or our thoughts and emotions can cause a variety of accidents.[i] And the infallible, consuming essence of our emotions and incessant biological needs is why our humane nature has garnered such a negative connotation in competitive, mathematical, fact-obsessed societies.
And it is why the major argument in favor of machine-driven cars is that it’s biological and emotional needs will not impact its reaction time and decision-making processes.
But without such emotional and biological processes, a self–driven car will not stop itself from hitting a human or a living animal because of fear of incarceration or distress in the consequences of taking the life of a living being. And- if such programing fails, or the right circumstances align that the car does not recognize or have the experience and mutable reasoning abilities to stop or swerve at a necessary obstruction, then a collision is likely.
In March of this year a self-driving car ran over a 49-year-old woman when it failed to recognize her as she crossed a street in an area where there was no crosswalk.[ii] This is something many city dwellers, including myself, do on a consistent basis in a fast-passed society where tardiness is not accepted and long-hours and commutes make our time precious. And we do it because we have faith that, even if we are in the wrong, the person, who is hopefully in a clear sate of mind, not sleep-deprived, not distracted, and not under the influence of a judgement-and-reaction-altering substance, will stop abruptly as they will fear the consequences of killing or injuring another human being.
Despite the fact that traffic collisions are a leading cause of death in the modern era, many of us will not experience a fatal car accident in our life. So most of us- who have been transported by motor vehicle just days after our birth- unquestioningly trust in our safety with a person behind the wheel; and rightly so. But, due to their novelty, different reactionary mechanisms, their alienation from humanity, and the lack of experience that they have driving and that we have with self-driving vehicles, autonomous cars are seemingly less trustworthy.
Perhaps we would behave differently as pedestrians, bicyclist, and motorists if we were aware that self-driving cars were roaming the streets. As of now, more than a dozen or so states allow self-driven vehicles on the road, albeit with stringent standards.[iii] But not many of us are aware of that. I wasn’t, before I looked into to this topic.
I am not arguing that machines are inherently less safe than humans. Humans are the ones building them, so their inherent properties must be remarkably similar to our own.[iv] In the future, even, they could be a safer option that human drivers. And it’s worth noting that a distracted safety officer was present in the car when the accident happened (though I would assume that he was not paying as much attention to his surroundings as he wasn’t actively engaged in the driving process).[v] But with autonomous vehicles on the road, it is likely that we will need to adapt or current model of traffic norms to keep us safe. And however difficult it is to change the norms and customs of a society or group of people, it is a task that must be used in conjunction with developing a safe technological system for fully-automated vehicles.
But that doesn’t seem to be in any company’s best priority due to the competitive, monetary advantage that developing the first successful, widely used automated car can provide the leading company. And because of this, companies such as Uber are sidestepping state regulations[vi] and are less likely to notify the general population of the presence of such vehicles on public roadways, as public outcry- as well as notice amongst competitors- could hinder such a success. [vii]
[i] The Try Guys did an interesting self-study on the effects of such states on their driving:
Mobile Distraction: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KmV5VOTL22w.
[iv] MIT reportedly conducted a survey on the ethical principles that people believe should be programmed into autonomous vehicles: https://www.engadget.com/2018/10/24/autonomous-vehicles-ethics-mit-study/.
[v] Mike Isaac, Daisuke Wakabauashi, and Kate Conger. “Uber’s Vision of Self-Driving Cars Begins to Blur.” 19 Aug. 2018: B1. The New York Times. Web. 25 Oct. 2018: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/19/technology/uber-self-driving-cars.html.
[vi] In 2016 Uber refused to apply for a state permit in California, claiming that the permits necessary for introducing autonomous vehicles on the road in San Francisco were not applicable as human safety drivers were present in the car. (“ibid.”)