The Deadly Delay Over Self-Driving Cars

Steve Goldbloom recently visited Google HQ to understand how their engineers are trying to create the safest driver on the road:

From a reader who’s really bullish about self-driving cars:

I noticed that the author echoed complaints from ethicists about the failure of autonomous vehicle engineers to consider ethical dilemmas such as: “Do I hit the pedestrian or the vehicle? Do I run off the road and into a canyon to avoid a bicyclist? Who gets imperiled and who is protected by autonomous decisions?” And so on. Ethicists are eager to get a piece of the action, and funding, to sort out these hypothetical questions.

That’s pure nonsense. Here’s the reality: Autonomous vehicles are already much, much safer than human drivers. Switching to them will cause accidents to plunge dramatically. As algorithms are refined, they will only get safer going forward.

Autonomous vehicles are not inattentive. They are cautious. They aren’t in a hurry. They respect spacing with respect to other traffic. They don’t get angry. They aren’t distracted by smartphones or talk radio or billboards or fast food. In a dangerous situation, they automatically shed energy, reacting much more rapidly than human drivers.

Here’s a genuine ethical question:

Should we delay autonomous vehicles so that ethicists can make money for a few years “studying” hypotheticals and ordering engineers around? This is an ethical question because any delay in the implementation of autonomous vehicles will produce tens of thousands of fatalities and even more injuries and damaged property—a cost far greater than any conceivable benefit of examining hypotheticals which are, frankly speaking, rare in the real world.

From our archives, this essay from Patrick Lin delved deep into the ethics of self-driving cars. Adrienne last fall examined research showing that widespread adoption of such cars could reduce traffic fatalities by 90 percent:

Which means that, using the number of fatalities in 2013 as a baseline, self-driving cars could save 29,447 lives a year. In the United States alone, that’s nearly 300,000 fatalities prevented over the course of a decade, and 1.5 million lives saved in a half-century. For context: Anti-smoking efforts saved 8 million lives in the United States over a 50-year period.

A few months prior that report, Adrienne marveled at the safety record of Google’s program. And now General Motors is getting in the game with Lyft. This reader is psyched for the driverless revolution:

Sign me up. I will have to fly less. Imagine getting in car at bedtime saying, “Drive me to New York” and waking up there in the morning. It will be just like being in a train sleeper car except no strangers.

Another excited reader:

One of the most difficult transitions in aging is loss of your drivers license and the severe limitation to the freedom of travel that follows. What a boon the self-driving car will be!

But among the losers of a driverless future: “Small town traffic cops, aka the revenue department, are going to rebel when their raison d'etre (tickets) is taken away.” Furthermore, says another reader:

The DEA and law enforcement in general is going to hate these. How do you profile people for dubious traffic law stops if the car is computer-driven?