It’s coming…the driverless car, the savior of combatants fighting the daily traffic grind, week-in and week-out.
Or is it?
Sure, handing over the reins to a tireless computer program sounds enticing during those moments of frustration over the crawl and sprawl of city life. But myriad considerations abound, and each of them presents a compelling case to cover the brakes, stop, and think for a minute.
Do we really want to give up that much control? Sure, one could argue that an autonomous mode is just that, a “mode.” But it won’t take long before manual operation could cease to be an option in a driverless world. And that’s, well, scary.
It’s scary when you’re trying to rush your pregnant wife to the hospital. It’s scary when you get an emergency call from a family member who’s just had a heart attack. And it’s scary to think that there could come a day when we lose even more control over our lives.
For “car guys” and “car gals” all over the world, it’s a frightening thought to think that we won’t be able to enjoy the art of driving top-down on PCH on a beautiful summer day. The joy and thrill of driving matters to some of us when we get to enjoy the fantastic fusion of man and machine as you charge with aplomb down your favorite canyon road. What of Mulholland Highway and Tail Of The Dragon? Just what’s the point if YOU don’t get to drive, and you’re simply to be ferried along?
And what of our favorite sports car marques and models? What of Ferrari and Lotus? What of the Supra, RX-7, NSX, or Corvette? One could argue (and successfully so) that in an autonomous age, those brands and cars simply cease to exist. For a brand whose identity is so inextricably linked to the “joie de conduire,” there can be no joy without a proper (human) driver at the helm.
If that weren’t enough, there are enough legal and ethical issues to make your head spin.
In the event of an accident, who’s responsible? Does personal responsibility go out the window when such a time comes where a human has zero decision-making power in an automobile?
And if such a time comes, will it be the big corporations who are responsible? Will the auto industry be willing to bear the cost associated with every accident? It’s hard to imagine that being palatable…or even fair. But someone will have to pay. And if it is only the insurance carriers, how do they assign fault, how will we adjudicate? What possible sense could it make to raise rates on drivers…oh, wait, that’s right…there are no drivers, at least not any that are part of a moral community in any meaningful philosophical sense.
But perhaps the most troubling issue of all lies in the ethics involved when computers are making decisions on who lives and who dies. Visions of the movie I, Robot come to mind, and if that isn’t eerie enough, think some more through the possible scenarios.
A yellow school bus full of children is about to have a collision with a silver sedan shuttling a single mother of three. The vehicles “decide” to collide in a way that kills the mother, but saves the children. This is the greater good, right? It’s utilitarianism at its finest, so who cares if we violate The Categorical Imperative.
Do we choose the young over the old to survive, not knowing anything else about their lives, responsibilities, or contributions to the world? Do we choose women over men, parents over the childless, doctors over janitors? The list goes on and on.
We keep reaching points where our technology threatens to outstrip our social wisdom on how to use it. The issues are plentiful, and it won’t just be business leaders, politicians, and lawyers who will decide our future. The place of the philosopher, the ethicist, and the everyman are as important as ever.
But it’s not all doom and gloom.
Right now, we have cars with lots of technology that still let us have some fun, that still let us have control. And the day’s not here yet when computers will ferry us freely, cheerfully curtailing our involvement.
There are some scenarios where the autonomous age seems magnificent. 405 Freeway, are you listening? One can only hope that if the true autonomous day ever comes, it will only come as an optional driving mode...because getting in a car can be a thing of beauty. And in this office, and I suspect in offices all over the world, there are still some people who love being a part of the epic experience we simply call driving.