April 24, 2019

Tesla has recently declared that it will offer fully autonomous vehicles by the second quarter of next year.

What are Autonomous Vehicles?

  • A driverless car, also called autonomous car or self-driving car, is a vehicle which can sense its surrounding environment and can navigate without human input.

  • It combines multiple sensors and techniques to perceive their surroundings like radar, laser light, GPS, odometer, computer vision, etc.

  • The advanced control systems interpret the sensory information for identifying the obstacles, relevant signage and navigation paths.

What are the technical concerns in launch of Autonomous vehicles?

  • When it’s heavy enough to cover the pavement, snow blocks the view of lane lines that vehicle cameras use to find their way. Researchers so far haven’t figured out a way around this in warm-weather climates such as Arizona and California.

  • Heavy snow, rain, fog and sandstorms can obstruct the view of cameras. Light beams sent out by laser sensors can bounce off snowflakes and think they are obstacles.

  • Across the globe, roadway marking lines are different, or they may not even exist. Lane lines aren’t standardized, so vehicles have to learn how to drive differently in each city. Sometimes there aren’t any curbs to help vehicles judge lane width.

What was the Uber incident of March 2018?

  • In March 2018, an autonomous self-driving Uber vehicle failed to avoid hitting a 49-year-old woman in Arizona. It was a first incident of accidental death involving driverless car. Such incidents have raised several ethical questions.

  • Surveys taken after the Uber crash showed that drivers are reluctant to give up control to a computer. One by AAA in March found 71 percent of people are afraid to ride in fully self-driving vehicles.

What are the Ethical concerns involved in their launch?

  • A self-driving vehicle take decision in a fraction of seconds. Thus ethical considerations do not come into play. Rather, the decisions result from a set of pre-existing preferences installed by coders.

  • Till now, the most prominent discussion has been around the trolley problem. How the autonomous car will decide in situations where death of one or more is certain?

  • Another concern is related to the responsibility of the accident. Who will be held responsible for accidents or death, the car, the car owner, the car company, or the autonomous technology of the car?

  • A major ethical dilemma is regarding how a car should decide between the lives of its passengers and the lives of pedestrians.

  • Will an autonomous car break the law, for example crossing over to opposite lane, to save a life?

What is Trolley problem?

  • It is an ethical problem in which lives of many can be saved at the cost of one.

  • A trolley is heading down the tracks toward five workers who will all be killed if the trolley proceeds on its present course. The only way to save the lives of the five workers is to divert the trolley onto another track that only has one worker on it.

Then what is the Way forward?

  • Over time, autonomous vehicles will only increase and its time to start thinking about what moral and ethical judgments these machines should be making.

  • There is no single guiding principle of ethics that could guide an autonomous vehicle. Multiple solution need to be evolved. The solution should be technically possible, ethically justifiable and legally defensible.

  • Professional ethicist need to be involved from the very early stages of designing to make them more effective.

  • Government need to enact laws which can overrule discriminatory considerations from decision making. For example, in August 2017, the German government made it illegal to programme an autonomous vehicle with demographic preferences when faced with the prospect of causing injury. It can only take actions to do least harm to people, and humans take precedence over property.

  • Autonomous vehicle companies are showing test passengers information on screens about where the vehicles are headed and what its sensors are seeing. The more people ride, the more they trust the vehicles.