During your lifetime, it is very likely you will encounter a self-driving vehicle on the road. But I will not try to convince you into this fact. My intention is to try to steer up some of your thoughts about this emerging technology.
The development of sensing, communication, and in-vehicle computing technology has enabled the development of new technology – vehicle will be able to detect the surrounding environment, talk to other vehicles or the road infrastructure, and compute all the needed parameters in real time using its own computer. Basically, vehicles will have robot-like capabilities. As a consequence, this technology has capability to eliminate the need for human driver. By eliminating the human error in driving, this technology has capability to introduce significant safety benefits. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) states that besides improving highway safety, this technology has potential for increasing environmental benefits, and expanding mobility (especially for older people).
In addition, this technology has an enormous commercial potential. Probably, you have heard about the initial developmental efforts started by Google, with the largest project for developing self-driving cars so far. Now, we have a situation when many car manufacturers are jumping in developing self-driving vehicle technology (e.g., General Motors, Audi, BMW, etc.). Besides car manufacturers, there is a long list of other companies (e.g., mobile service providers) that also see their role and potential in influencing the development of this technology.
From this, we can see that government agencies see the potential benefits for general public, and the influence from commercial sector, that perceives economic potential of this technology. Consequently, these two forces will definitely push this technology forward. In addition, as long United States are concerned, there are not a lot of legal constraints preventing these cars to be in the street as of today.
The importance of this technology is clearly evident. And self-driving vehicle is coming (you can see here how might it look approaching an intersection from inside of a self-driving vehicle). However, considering significance of this technology, everybody seems to forget talking to the third player in the game. You. The user. Besides reducing immediate negative effects of traffic, or boosting the economy, there are other questions that seem to be generally overlooked in the development of self-driving vehicle technology. What I see as a general point for concern, are potential negative effects if this technology is designed primarily with a vision to resolve our current issues. Narrow design vision might result in negative effects in the long term and once this technology is implemented on the large scale.
To find an example of the effects of narrow design vision in transportation, we don’t have to look far. As a very good example, we can look at the conventional traffic signal control technology. This technology (including devices, theory, practice) is still dependent upon the foundational vision, established more than a century ago (for a brief overview of historical development of traffic signal technology, please refer to the previous blog entry). I, as a signal control expert, know the amount of efforts engineering community has dedicated and will still dedicate to improve traffic signal technology. Technology that was originally developed for controlling trains but it was transferred to urban intersections in an attempt to resolve some safety issues. And the consequence is – over and over again, traffic signals have under-performed – never completely resolving crashes or congestion on our streets.
Some folks in Europe have recognized the obsolescence of some of the conventional traffic signal control principles – the same principles that through large-scale implementation and long-term development show to be too narrow and started to create unwanted side effects of its own. Organized in the project called Equality Streets, they are urging for removal of traffic signals and change in design perspective by utilizing natural human tendency for cooperation and altruism.
Now you probably, think – well, what could be the problem with self-driving vehicle technology? First, you might think – well, self-driving cars are highly dependent upon computer technology – and computers are unreliable. Blue screen of death. But then think how often you have seen blue screen error on your latest version of Windows, and compare that to how often you have seen unsafe human driving during your daily commute. So computer reliability is an issue, but not an unsolvable one. Essentially, the deployment of this technology can be delayed until all the possible technology error scenarios have been tested, and several layers of protection have been established. Until it all operates smoothly.
On the other hand, remember that these vehicles will essentially be robots, transporting people around and making probably hundreds of decisions in a minute. Here comes a famous “trolley problem” – what if the car is faced with a choice between doing nothing, where five people die, and taking action, where one person dies? So now you are starting to realize there are ethical issues that these robot-cars will have to face. Consequently, they will essentially need to be moral robots.
But what about moral humans? And what about other effects on humans?
Let me try to expand your perspective here. Imagine you are going to vacation. Your self-driving car is approaching an intersection. Simultaneously, another self-driving car is approaching that same intersection, but from another approach. You have a way to know that the other car is transporting a woman in labor on her way to the hospital. Would you tell your self-driving car to yield to that vehicle? What if that other car is transporting a person that just had a heart attack? And how about if you are late to an important job interview instead of going to a vacation? In these cases, contrary to the trolley problem, no one is bound to die on the spot. But there is a risk of potential harm in the near future. And there is a potential that some other day, you will be the one going to the hospital, and needing to get through the intersection as fast as possible.
So, all delay is not created equal, and that “unwanted” delay might happen to you too. This becomes an issue of access. Every intersection, as a point in the network with limited availability of time-space, often requires the restriction of your fundamental right to freedom of movement. In addition, considering that intersection are public investment, control also relates to the right to equal access to public service. As a consequence of the restriction of these two rights, there is an indirect effect on fulfillment of your other rights: right to life, right to work, right to leisure, right to standard of living adequate for health, right to education. As a consequence, the principle that robot-cars will use to determine their right-of-way through the intersection might affect you and other people on several levels. For example, a person waiting excessively at an intersection on his way to the hospital might die. A person waiting excessively at an intersection might be late for an important job interview, leaving his family without income.
From these points comes the question – should ethical decisions solely be in the responsibility of robots or should humans still share the part of decision-making responsibility? And if so, what will be the effect on human decision-making and attitudes in relation to ethical questions? Would someone, several centuries from now, see as acceptable not to let that woman in labor go through the intersection before him just because his robot car makes decisions based on some principle of global system efficiency? And what if we decide that the principle for obtaining the right of way through the intersection bases on your ability to pay for it? Should some great grandson of Bill Gates (no offense), with the ability to pay more than you, and while going to the beach, get the right of way through the intersection before you? Even if you had a heart attack because you were working on a low-paid job?
These are just some questions to steer up your imagination. At the end of this, we can see that this technology will affect, not just our travel behavior, but our attitudes and values. Consequently, it will affect our development as human race in general. And it might force us to ask some fundamental questions about our civilization.
On the other hand, we engineers often try to address the “how” questions – how can we resolve this? How can this be improved? How can we solve the problem? But we often tend to forget about a more fundamental questions preceding the “how” questions. So this is a message in the bottle to you – the user – to look beyond the potential of self-driving vehicle technology to solve our current issues – traffic accidents, congestion, pollution, etc. Because there is a potential to solve those issue without compromising the potential for greater positive effects on a social scale. Here, I urge you to ask yourself and request from government agencies and tech companies to ask themselves two questions:
- What vision of life will self-driving technology have?
- What will be specific social effects (on human behavior, attitudes, and values) of this technology – besides economic or environmental effects?
Once we have some opinions on these questions, and you start thinking of some other questions, we can all engage in a discussion and actively shape the design vision of this revolutionary technology.
Until then – imagine…