Driverless Car Debate Continues

by William Mattar | May 3rd, 2017

As a follow up to our entry exploring the aftermath of the first motor vehicle collision involving an autonomous car that Google—or any other self-driving car manufacturer—has taken responsibility for, a recent article published in The Atlantic poses an interesting hypothetical: “Can Google’s Driverless Car Project Survive A Fatal Accident?”

The author claims that she has “interviewed dozens of computer scientists, artificial-intelligence researchers, engineers, and other thinkers focused on self-driving cars,” all of whom placing considerable emphasis on society’s reaction to the first fatal accident in which a self-driving car is to blame.

Claiming that the February 14, 2016 incident—a “fender bender” with no injuries—“won’t change public opinion at all,” the author explained how a fatal accident “will ultimately determine the technology’s trajectory”:

If driverless cars are to deliver on their promise, and really replace the majority of human-driven cars on the roads, a fatal accident will eventually happen. And a fatal accident could doom the entire effort.

While conceding that autonomous vehicles face a “thicket of difficult ethical and regulatory uncertainties”—some of which having already been chronicled in this blog—the biggest obstacle, according to the author, is social in nature.

Comparing public perceptions from the early 20th Century—where major cities threw parades with children dressed as ghosts, representing the number of automobile-related deaths in a given year, to underscore the danger of automobiles—to the present day, the author framed the issue as follows:

Self-driving cars could dramatically reduce the number of deaths . . . If, as many researchers believe, self-driving cars end up shrinking traffic fatalities by up to 90 percent this century, driverless cars could save as many lives as anti-smoking efforts have . . . [but] [h]ow will the public accept a car that is 100 percent autonomous but not 100 percent safe—even if it’s far safer than a human-driven alternative?

Is the issue, at the end of the day, really just a matter of self-determination?

Despite the possible boon to public health, will society resist self-driving cars due to a perception that the self-driving car occupant has sacrificed control over the vehicle and, as a consequence, his/her safety and wellbeing?

It seems unlikely that secession of vehicle control alone could down self-driving cars. Data suggests that, on an annual basis, their implementation could save hundreds of thousands of lives across the country.

Many people fear flying due to a perceived helplessness in the skies, but the data continues to suggest that it’s easily one of the safest ways to travel. The same logic applies to vehicle passengers: They have little to no control over the actions of the driver, yet the carpool lane continues to swell every rush hour.