Self-Driving Vehicles - Risks, Ethics, and You

In Case of an Accident

Since 2013, self-driving vehicles have established themselves as a growing influence in our society. Whether they're delivering hot pizza, carrying bulk items in large trucks across interstate lines, or acting as a taxi in a busy city, autonomous (and semi-autonomous) vehicles will revolutionize our driving experience.

However, as with every new technological advancement, there are unforeseen risks and ethical dilemmas that must be addressed. Think about what would happen in case of an imminent car crash. For example, if an autonomous car could not stop in time and had to choose between going left (hitting a pedestrian) or going right (hitting a vehicle), which would they choose? At the base level, someone's code (in conjunction with ongoing AI) will determine the direction the vehicle travels, and potentially the fate of one or more people.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • In an unavoidable collision, how can we trust the code will make the best judgment?
  • What are the legal implications of such an accident; even if the autonomous vehicle isn't at fault, would they still face some liability for whom they chose to hit?
  • Should they be legally required to implement self-reporting of an accident to the nearest fire & rescue?
  • Let's say someone else was at fault in an accident with a driverless vehicle. When they get out to exchange insurance information (and notify police), only to find out there's not a person in there, would they be more likely to flee the scene?

Technology Risks of Self-Driving Vehicles

Security: According to an article by itv.com, "99% of cars tested by the German General Automobile Club (ADAC) were found to be vulnerable to a specific flaw, enabling criminals to unlock cars and drive them away." This isn't specific to driverless vehicles, but at some point, one of these will be stolen (if it hasn't happened.000000 already). What other safety methods are in place in case of a self-driving vehicle theft? Can these vehicles determine it is being 'stolen' and triangulate its position and feed it to local law enforcement? Would they hunt it down?

Bugs / Updates: Just like any other form of software, self-driving vehicles will be constantly updated with new features and bug fixes, among other things. As we all know, technology isn't a perfect science and there can be many unforeseen complications. Remember the Windows '98 Blue Screen of Death fiasco? The problem with bugs in self-driving vehicles' software is that a malfunction could have deadly consequences.

Potential Software Disasters (Examples seen below):

  • Denver Airport: Originally billed as the most advanced system in the world, the baggage handling system at the new Denver International Airport was to become one of the most notorious examples of project failure. Originally planned to automate the handling of baggage through the entire airport, the system proved to be far more complex than some had original believed. The problems building the system resulted in the newly complete airport sitting idle for 16 months while engineers worked on getting the baggage system to work. The delay added approximately $560M USD to the cost of the airport
  • Boeing 737MAX MCAS System: Boeing was aware of several issues with the faulty system yet failed to do anything about it, leading to two crashes — one involving Lion Air Flight 610, in October 2018, and another involving Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019 — killing 346 people. "Oh, we will just fix that problem by changing the software." Here we are more than 1 year later with losses of about $11 Billion. Because complex software is complex and the interactions between modules is very challenging.
  • Government of Canada Payroll System: How hard can payroll be? Easier than driving a car I would think. Canada’s federal government is spending $400 Million this year (2019) to fix the payroll system. The system, whose original 2009 budget was $309 million, had already cost taxpayers $954 million and could rise to $2.2 billion by 2023 in unplanned costs.

How Self-Driving Vehicle Technology Will Affect You

"Self-driving vehicle" technology is still in its infancy and current cars generally only provide partially-autonomous assistance - where there's still a human operator, but the technology provides brake and lane changing assistance etc. However, according to self-driving start-up Pony.ai's CEO, fully autonomous cars could be on the road in five years.

The impact that this technology will have on our society will be monumental. New laws will be written, logistical hurdles will not be hindered by a person's ability to drive (completely changing the goods market), jobs will be created (and some will be rendered obsolete), delivery and taxi services will change, and so much more. Driverless automation technology can eventually help prevent some accidents and provide a safer mode of transportation than that of a human operator. But, at what point do we trust a new software with our family's lives? It's easier to think about food deliveries being automated, but what about school buses - will we ever be ready for that?


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