Will Your Driverless Car Stop For Muggers?

Martin Romjue
Posted on May 3, 2018
The prospect of driverless cars raises many complex operational and ethical questions that should make riders skeptical. (LCT image)

The prospect of driverless cars raises many complex operational and ethical questions that should make riders skeptical. (LCT image)

The first official death due to a driverless car has rattled our cultural nervous system.

By now, just about anyone in the field of fleet transportation knows the details. As they say in the media, the optics here are worse than fiction: Troubled, controversial big tech company hurrying its research toward driverless cars with an ex-felon behind the wheel runs down and kills a homeless woman in a crosswalk on a clear Sunday night in Arizona with little traffic.

America’s seemingly inevitable driverless revolution now spins its tail in the slick patch of hubris, hype, and a host of hard questions. Unfortunately, shock and tragedy often must serve as the first trigger for healthy skepticism.

The Uber death coincides with a troubled period when the regaled tech emperors are losing their clothes. Facebook cannot protect our data; retailers and credit card companies lose our information to hackers; hotel room cardkeys become demagnetized; the U.S. government loses secrets; phone trees drop your calls; Google Maps can take you through skid row; and for all the wonders of Macs and PCs, they still crash. Most frightening of all, we live in a time when we must seriously worry about an enemy taking down the power grid for months.

Why should driverless vehicles be any different? Except here, lives are directly at stake. Identities, hotel keys, computer files, and credit cards all can be recovered, with no physical threat to you. A glitch in a driverless car algorithm or an obscured sensor can kill you, as we all now know for sure.

Big Questions
The driverless death raises all types of difficult questions, from the philosophical to the practical: Who ultimately controls and monitors the driverless network? Who stores, protects, and uses all the data about your every movement? Do cameras monitor inside as well as outside the car? Can driverless vehicles coexist with driven ones, for those who prefer a day to day choice? How many deaths and injuries could really be spared?

That brings us to the point incessantly raised by the romantic tech gods: Statistically, driverless cars will save lives. Forty-thousand people die in auto accidents in the U.S. every year. What if that dwindled to a few hundred? Or what if it didn’t? When the power goes down, thousands of homes and businesses stand in the dark. If the driverless system hiccups or gets hacked, how many vehicles in motion could go awry? And then the ultimate trick question: In a split-second, how does a driverless car decide whether to kill someone else or sacrifice you?

Who Gets Control?
Humans cope with risk by embracing the illusion of control. You drive your car. The other driver controls his. At least there is the chance human attention can avert an accident. And if not, doesn’t coping with the aftermath seem more comprehensible if fault can be found? She turned too soon. He drove too fast. It could have been prevented. We could have controlled it and can make sure we’re more careful. How do you find fault and make sense of a death caused by a pulsating, programmed ghost in the coded machine?

One commenter on our Facebook page, repeated in this issue on p. 6, referenced the first death caused by a motorcar in 1896. The rest is history, he points out. But that argument doesn’t quite stand up. Horses threw riders to their deaths in the millennia before autos. Horse-drawn carriages trampled pedestrians to death. No form of transportation is perfect. Yet that’s what the driverless enthusiasts are selling us: Near-perfection, except for the first time in history, without human control.

What if human will, the desire to control ones mobility, can never be changed? Millions of family photo albums across America include the milestone shot of a baby-turned-toddler pushing the stroller. It’s a pre-programmed human instinct — to move, take control, and be free. Do we want to be a coddled nation moved about by big tech’s algorithmic versions of auto-strollers?

As an editor, I digested my share of breathless reports from all viewpoints on the driverless death. One comment in a March 26 Wall Street Journal op-ed by writer Abigail Shrier stood out, which I rephrase as yet another question: If two armed-robbers, or even troublemakers, one day step in front of your driverless car, will it stop politely and effectively trap you on the road? I would add, what if as predicted, the driverless cocoons have no brakes, pedals, steering wheel, or override controls?

After all the tech soul searching and analysis, all the hype about surrendering to smart gadgets, we could very well rediscover an operating system never to be surpassed: No machine may ever match the inexplicable, wondrous depth of human perception.

Human instincts now are saying, slow down. Let’s think this through. Let’s pursue a tech autonomy that balances safety with control, while we can still get out and steer the stroller.

Related Topics: autonomous vehicles, driverless cars, industry trends, LCT editor, liability, Martin Romjue, mobile technology, passenger safety, Safety & Insurance, self-driving vehicles

Martin Romjue Editor
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