Self-driving cars: innovating along the beaten path? (republished)

Image MonikaP via Pixabay

It will not have escaped anyone’s attention: the tech and automotive industry is going full throttle on the development of the self-driving car. Slowly but surely it is making its appearance. But what moral dilemmas does this bring with it? And is such a self-driving car really the solution?

A conference of the Association of Netherlands Municipalities focused on various issues related to the role of government in the information society. The introduction of autonomous vehicles was one of them.

New questions

One striking way in which the self-driving car received attention at the congress was the presentation of the Moral Machine. This is a research platform launched by MIT at the end of last year. In it, as a test subject, you are presented with a number of scenarios in which a self-driving car has a problem with its brakes. A collision is inevitable and the choice presented is who, or what, the car should hit in that case.

Two choices are presented in each scenario, in which each time the battlefield consists of a different composition of children, dogs, men, women, homeless people, criminals, and so on, who may or may not run a red light.

At the end of the game you are presented with an analysis of your personal ‘preferences’. For example, it may turn out that you most often choose to run into dogs, followed by children (‘you can make them again’, one of the participants light-heartedly argued), criminals, and so on. This personal score is then measured against all other participants, to finally arrive at a widely supported ethical framework at the macro level. But then?

Self-driving machines also need instructions

Suppose the research showed that the Dutch mainly (and I’m going to make this very explicit) prefer to drive into older people. Are we then really going to program our self-driving cars in such a way? After all, self-driving machines also need instructions. And what if we drive across the border to foreign countries, where people want the car to choose precisely the preferred way to hit children, so to speak? Or maybe we’ll get situations where people consciously buy a particular brand of car because it’s programmed to spare animals in particular? A new interpretation of the ‘eco-line version’.

At least as complicated, by the way, was the outcome of a similar survey last year. People think that in the aforementioned emergency scenarios, in principle as few people as possible should be the victims. Except when it concerns themselves. And since the person is alternately the occupant or the pedestrian, this results in a nice stalemate.

It may be clear that the above lines of thought do not lead to a satisfactory solution quickly.

Solutions from old thinking

In principle, I am not against technology such as self-driving cars, and progress in general is valuable. Moreover, many innovations have proven to be of great benefit or importance to the well-being of humanity as a whole, while they were questioned beforehand. Consider the skepticism with which mobile telephony was received.

Apart from the ethical dilemmas posed by this specific issue, it strikes me that it feels a bit like fighting the symptoms. As a solution based on old thinking, based on how we are now used to living, housing and working.

This is evident, for example, from the approach of wanting cars to read traffic signs in the first place, as we humans are used to doing. That is simply a one-to-one translation of the current situation. But in this case with an application of digital rather than our “biological” sensors. Next, we think about a new kind of signs, or even by other forms of signaling. And that makes sense, because that’s how the world looks at the moment. This is how we have set up the traffic system now.

The current development of the autonomous car is still based on the massiveness with which we have to and want to travel every day. For example, to go to work. There is apparently a great distance between where we want to be and where we need to be. What does that say about the concentration or spread of suitable employment, recreation, nature and pleasant living? And is the self-driving car really the right answer?

Different perspective

We can also take a completely different approach. For example, by focusing on more collaboration in a virtual environment.

We could furnish vacant office buildings, which are available in just about every town and village, as virtual cooperation hubs. You walk or bike there in the morning, load a program with a setting like, say, the Bahamas, and wait until all the meeting participants have logged in. Of course, the room has already been warmed up when reserving the location and loading the program, and the fruit shakes are already chilled.

If at any point you feel too virtual, you can simply take a stroll with the other users of the vr hub. That is not only fun and healthy because of the physical exercise, but also good for your network, shall we say. The travel time you save can then be spent with family, friends or neighbors.

Several roads to Rome

There are undoubtedly many more solutions that can be thought up as an answer to our mobility problem and a nationwide spread of pleasant working and living. What possibilities do you see?

Original publication on Frankwatching: