Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The ethics of robot cars

“By midcentury, the penetration of autonomous vehicles... could ultimately cause vehicle crashes in the U.S. to fall from second to ninth place in terms of their lethality ranking.” — McKinsey

Paul Leroux
If you saw a discarded two-by-four on the sidewalk, with rusty nails sticking out of it, what would you do? Chances are, you would move it to a safe spot. You might even bring it home, pull the nails out, and dispose of it properly. In any case, you would feel obliged to do something that reduces the probability of someone getting hurt.

Driver error is like a long sharp nail sticking out of that two-by-four. It is, in fact, the largest single contributor to road accidents. Which raises the question: If the auto industry had the technology, skills, and resources to build vehicles that could eliminate accidents caused by human error, would it not have a moral obligation to do so? I am speaking, of course, of self-driving cars.

Now, a philosopher I am not. I am ready to accept that my line of thinking on this matter has more holes than Swiss cheese. But if so, I’m not the only one with Emmenthal for brain matter. I am, in fact, in good company.

Take, for example, Bryant Walker-Smith, a professor in the schools of law and engineering at the University of South Carolina. In an article in MIT Technology Review, he argues that, given the number of accidents that involve human error, introducing self-driving technology too slowly could be considered unethical. (Mind you, he also underlines the importance of accepting ethical tradeoffs. We already accept that airbags may kill a few people while saving many; we may have to accept that the same principle will hold true for autonomous vehicles.)

Then there’s Roger Lanctot of Strategy Analytics. He argues that government agencies and the auto industry need to move much more aggressively on active-safety features like automated lane keeping and automated collision avoidance. He reasons that, because the technology is readily available — and can save lives — we should be using it.

Mind you, the devil is in the proverbial details. In the case of autonomous vehicles, the ethics of “doing the right thing” is only the first step. Once you decide to build autonomous capabilities into a vehicle, you often have to make ethics-based decisions as to how the vehicle will behave.

For instance, what if an autonomous car could avoid a child running across the street, but only at the risk of driving itself, and its passengers, into a brick wall? Whom should the car be programmed to save? The child or the passengers? And what about a situation where the vehicle must hit either of two vehicles — should it hit the vehicle with the better crash rating? If so, wouldn’t that penalize people for buying safer cars? This scenario may sound far-fetched, but vehicle-to-vehicle (V2X) technology could eventually make it possible.

The “trolley problem” captures the dilemma nicely:

Being aware of such dilemmas gives me more respect for the kinds of decisions automakers will have to make as they build a self-driving future. But you know what? All this talk of ethics brings something else to mind. I work for a company whose software has, for decades, been used in medical devices that help save lives. Knowing that we do good in the world is a daily inspiration — and has been for the last 25 years of my life. And now, with products like the QNX OS for Safety, we are starting to help automotive companies build ADAS systems that can help mitigate driver error and, ultimately, reduce accidents. So I’m doubly proud.

More to the point, I believe this same sense of pride, of helping to make the road a safer place, will be a powerful motivator for the thousands of engineers and development teams dedicated to paving the road from ADAS to autonomous. It’s just one more reason why autonomous cars aren’t a question of if, but only of when.

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