Will U.S. Drivers Buy Self-Driving Cars?

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Roads may be overall safer with them, but the public will have to accept the reality that technical glitches will occasionally kill 

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Reuters/Beawiharta Beawiharta


The idea of automated automobiles isn't as wild as it might seem. Google is trying to have them legalized in Nevada. The plausible basis of the concept is that a well-designed electronic guidance system can probably perform more safely and economically in normal conditions than an average driver, just as an autopilot can operate an aircraft on a predetermined flight path more efficiently than a pilot.

But as Cameron Shelley of the University of Waterloo Centrer for Society, Technology, and Values notes, the big issue of automated controls isn't the normal 99.9-percent-of-the-time but the emergency. Every guidance program potentially entails ethical decisions, especially one that takes over in an emergency, as "co-driver" systems are now being planned to do. And one of them is the issue of self-preservation versus forced altruism:

In the folklore of driving, the front passenger seat of a car is known as the death seat because a car driver will swerve away from an oncoming vehicle, thus placing the person in the passenger side between the driver and the threat. This maneuver is not a calculated decision, just a natural instinct in a split-second situation. Of course, a computerized co-driver with lots of information about the situation may well have the opportunity to decide who gets to live and who does not. So, we need to think about how this decision is to be made. Is it, as in the movie I, robot, to be based on a risk assessment? If so, how? If not, why not? How would you program the co-driver to behave in such circumstances?

Since even Google does not claim to have mastered bug-free programming, the real question is whether the public is ready to pay the price of a lower level of deaths and injuries per million passenger miles -- some accidents caused by software and hardware failures. Do you imagine legislators will vote for laws exempting Google and big auto makers for liability in such cases?

Automated driving's biggest problems, though, are social, not legal or technological. It will eventually work well in homogeneous, prosperous nations with strict checks, like those of Germany's rigorous nonprofit inspectorate, the TÜV, and Japan's private garages. (At least as recently as the 1990s, required repairs even of late-model cars were so expensive that they helped create a booming export market and stimulated frequent new-car buying.) The smaller, richer, more disciplined and more homogeneous the country, the better the prospects. The shaky financial state of many American drivers and the notoriously high cost of electronic component replacements (safety systems need multiple redundant versions of key hardware and software) would make the automated car an exotic techie luxury here, the 21st-century Segway.

Google should be thinking Singapore and Canton Zurich, not Reno.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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