Autonomous or ‘self-governing’ vehicles are the future. Whether the average consumer is aware, major companies such as Tesla, Lyft, and Uber are moving forward with significant testing of these self-driving machines. While early testing seems to show promise and lawmakers are beginning to draw up legislation, not all parties are playing nice.
The Wall Street Journal broke news on Wednesday, December 15th that Uber, the self-proclaimed ‘side-hustle’ that allows individuals to act as a local taxi service, has begun testing self-driving vehicles in San Francisco – only without receiving the proper permits; permits that their competitors have already obtained.
“Based on how the car is operating and used, we feel strongly the car is not an autonomous vehicle,” stated the senior director of engineering for Uber on Tuesday. Their argument is that their vehicles, during this testing period, aren’t ‘autonomous’ as they have an individual in the driver’s seat and an engineer in the passenger seat closely monitoring the vehicle. They are self-driving, but under close supervision and, in Uber’s eyes, this nullifies the need for a permit.
The story is one of semantics. Uber believes the law is circumvented by its interpretation of ‘autonomy.’ This argument is important, though not for this debate between the California DMV and Uber, but because it shows there are many shades of autonomy that are still being considered.
We went over to the BMW website and started to build ourselves a custom 4 Series. One of the options was a ‘Driver’s Assistance Package’ designed to ‘help you avoid hazardous situations.’ Most, if not all, major vehicle manufacturers offer similar packages (though often at a high cost). What this means, in reality, is when you take your hands off the wheel for a moment and start veering toward the guardrail, the vehicle’s sensors pick up the danger and automatically correct course. This is a form of autonomy, even if it is in a much simpler form.
The point is, we are already surrounded by vehicles with varying degrees of autonomy. That isn’t to say Uber has the right of it, especially when you consider the permit they are fighting against costs a whopping $150 according to the California DMV, but it raises important ethical questions that must be considered as we move further down this path of autonomy.
Are we ready for full autonomy? Let’s look at a hypothetical situation:
You are riding in a fully autonomous vehicle and moving too quickly to be able to properly apply your brakes. In your immediate path is a pedestrian crossing the road. There are two viable options: continue on the current path or veer into oncoming traffic. You, as the passenger, don’t have the reaction speed to decide, in fact, you’ve been enjoying a cup of coffee and a book, so the autonomy decides.
This hypothetical should raise many questions:
Should vehicles be designed to protect the passenger or vulnerable pedestrians?
In the event where the vehicle veers into traffic, who is at fault?
The passenger or the vehicle manufacturer?
Apply the same question to the pedestrian being struck. How will insurance carriers, often basing policy premiums and insurance payouts on ‘fault,’ treat autonomous vehicles?
Let’s make it even more personal. What emotional impact might the autonomous vehicles decisions have on the passenger? One might argue it would lessen the emotional burden when another is injured, but what of control? Imagine being in that split second, either outcome occurring and looking back, agonizing over the inability to react or make a decision, knowing you would have made the opposite had you been paying attention and not relying on the autonomy of the vehicle.
This example seems extreme – it is extreme – but it’s vital for lawmakers and consumers to consider as we move into the future. These autonomous vehicles will have to be programmed with decisions like this very one in mind. Not every situation has a ‘right’ answer, which is exactly what makes vehicle autonomy such a tricky topic.