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Riding driverless cars into uncharted ethics

By Barbara Muniz and Quip Johnson

Driverless car manufacturers are eager to make their technology a reality. However, the release of automated cars presents both ethical and technical quandaries.

The transportation business has gone through significant changes before, but the advent of driverless cars means a multitude of only partially understood ramifications. If approved, driverless trucks will displace many drivers; thus causing unemployment.

There is no doubt that unemployment will affect workers, their families, and the community overall. But should technology be held back and cause economic stagnation in favor of traditional jobs?

Driving is one of the most common jobs in the world, and these men and women who find themselves obsolete in their lifetimes will need to be accommodated- with new jobs, guaranteed income, or some other compensation. Benefits to the companies owning and using the new technology mean nothing if the workers are disenfranchised.

But Secretary Elaine L. Chao, from the United States Department of Transportation (DOT), is positive that the government is making the right move by allowing driverless car manufacturers to continue progressing.

“The future of this new technology is so full of promise. It’s a future where vehicles increasingly help drivers avoid crashes. It’s a future where the time spent commuting is dramatically reduced, and where millions more—including the elderly and people with disabilities–gain access to the freedom of the open road. It’s a future where highway fatalities and injuries are significantly reduced.” Chao said.

Although Chao’s words seem promising, scholars and researchers at the Center for Automotive Research (CARS) brought up issues involving ethics and vehicle cybersecurity.

  For example, what would a driverless car do if there were five individuals on the street in front of the automated vehicle in motion? The automated car has the option of killing those transients or minimizing the fatality by crashing into a wall, resulting in injury or even death to the passenger.

Will sensor information be accurate enough to make the decision just like a human driver, or be even better? Scientists say automated drivers will be safer, but dilemmas still present themselves.

Self-driving cars aren’t dangerous because they might kill someone; they’re dangerous because they will by necessity determine whose life’s value is of greater importance in emergencies.

In 1967, Philippa Foot developed what is known as the “trolley problem,” an ethical experiment in which an unstoppable trolley is headed toward five people tied to the tracks and the subject of the experiment must decide if it is better to let the trolley go or to pull a lever diverting it to a secondary track with a single person tied to it.

Today’s reincarnation of the trolley problem is the self-driving car dilemma: if collision is imminent, should the car preserve the life of the driver or pedestrians?

The real question should not be who to save but rather who is holding the lever?

If a basic computer is faced with this problem, it will pick both plausible options equally as often. Half the time it will save the driver and the other half, the pedestrians.

Humans will program the artificial intelligence behind self-driving cars, imbuing it with personal bias, and moral hazard intentionally or not. And collective personal bias is synonymous with political bias.

If a corporation owns the cars, it might decide to kill the pedestrians to preserve its property from irreparable damage, or conversely, it might elect to kill the driver, who has presumably signed a form waiving their rights, to avoid a potential lawsuit with the pedestrians.

Government-controlled vehicles open an even larger debate regarding what rights and protections the Constitution can still guarantee in a time when laws struggle to keep up with the rapid development of technology.

Governments could potentially halt and control the movements of alleged criminals, prohibit driving to certain events such as protests or fail to map certain areas altogether, isolating that location from vehicular transport. Consider the potential of this technology to preserve the sovereignty of despots- the tracking of political minorities, the shutdown of whole cities’ autonomy in crises.

With no way to completely guard against abuse of control and no set safety and privacy standards, self-driving cars would prove more harmful than helpful and, they should not be incorporated into modern society.

Illustration by Quip Johnson.
Illustration by Quip Johnson.


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