The big problems with autonomous cars aren’t technical, they’re human.

SELF-DRIVING CARS are coming, sooner or later. But not all at once – there will be increasing degrees of automation as the human driver has less and less to do. Today, we’ve got automatic gearboxes, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and on the way is much more technology to turn the ‘driver’ into more of a passenger who just gives some vague direction every now and again. 

Chief amongst these developments is safety technology – the sort of tech that brakes automagically for you, changes lanes and generally does its best to avoid an accident. Those computer brains never get tired, angry, road-ragey, upset, or seek revenge. 

And that is their strength, but also their weakness in a world of tired, angry, road-ragey and vengeful humans.

It will be awfully tempting for humans to abuse the docile, forgiving nature of automated-driving safety technology. Want to cut in? You do so, knowing the auto-car will give way. Want to cross a road? Out you step, and the auto-car yields. Humans will ruthlessly exploit the simple fact that the auto-cars will back off every time, either so they progress at the expense of the auto-car, or just for the hell of it.

Imagine someone coming out of a restaurant and summoning their self-driving car from the carpark. Waiting in the shadows are a group of mischievous teenagers who block the car’s way, forcing it to turn here and there, backing it into a corner, or take circuitous routes of amusement. What fun could be had, what obstacles and challenges could be devised!

Self-driving cars could perhaps suffer the same fate as Andrew, in Isaac Asimov’s Bicenenntial Man. In Asimov’s world, robots must obey human commands provided they do not endanger human lives or safety. So, for fun, some boys ask Andrew the robot to dismantle himself. Andrew has to obey, but in the book he is saved. In the real world, the question remains unanswered, and even to a great extent, undefined.

The easy part of self-driving cars is the technology. The hard part is dealing with people. It’s going to be interesting to see how such challenges of ethics and human nature are resolved.


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