Of Paradoxes and Human Errors: Implications of Driverless Cars

Ashish Kumar Jha

Author: Ashish Kumar Jha

Date: Wed, 2016-09-21 13:28

An accident involving Tesla’s much coveted autopilot programmed car has given rise to a host of issues around driverless cars. Imagine a future where hordes of fully autonomous cars take over our streets. In that same future, a car cruising at 150 miles per hour develops a technical snag, reboots automatically and in the melee crashes with another car resulting in unfortunate deaths. The question now is who is responsible for the death. Does it lie within the ambit of industrial accident and hence no individual goes punished. Is it the fault of the owner of the faulty car or the engineer who programmed the car? Can we lay the blame on the doorsteps of the quality engineer who certified the car?

All these questions force us to look forward into the evolving relationships between man and machine. Humans by nature seek retribution. The blame has to lie on someone, someone identifiable and accountable. Numerous works of research have shown that our uneasiness with machines does not lie in trusting their efficacy or accuracy. Even the worst critics of automation cede that machines even on their worst days outperform humans. The issue that makes us uncomfortable with machines is the lack of accountability. What if something wrong happens, who will be accountable for such a condition. The doomsday war between humans and machines circa the “Terminator” movie series is going to emerge, if at all, due to the lack of any human accountability in machine related mishaps.

The life of a proponent of the driverless car has not been easy in recent years. The issue raised above is in addition to the multiple ethical and moral dilemmas already surrounding the driverless cars. The moral questions regarding “who to kill” in the event of a certain accident has occupied popular media over the past few years. There is no easy or widely acceptable answer to these questions. Humans prefer social well-being over individual when they are not the individual in question. The answer to “should a car kill the driver to save lives of 10 pedestrians” and “would you sit in a car which is programmed to kill you to save others” is often not the same. I would not go into the swamp of discussion on the morals of deciding a pecking order of human lives.

However, these moral dilemmas deserve some thought because whether we like it or not driverless cars are fast becoming a reality. Even if we leave the questions of the pecking order of human lives there is a second concern. Who decides the pecking order? Do we let free market competitive firms decide the pecking order and risk falling into the traps of ever more secure cars for passengers? The cars could evolve on to become killing machines on streets. Or we let government regulations do the job. After all government already does a lot of regulation making in the name of social welfare. The risk there is that very few people would willingly buy a socially relevant car designed to sacrifice them.

But all the moral dilemma moments rely on one basic assumption that the computer in the car does not have enough time to apply brakes and stop the accident or fatalities but has enough time to compute the pecking order of deaths and make a choice of the sacrificial lamb. What if the computer chip is slow and the well accepted pecking order of lives could not be computed. What would the repercussions of some non-computed lives being lost be? This goes back to the first point that I rose “who is to blame”. How similar are the issues of slow computer chip and human with slow reaction time. How similar would the situation of a chip not clearing its cache and hence becoming slow be to the situation of drunk driving?

There are no easy answers to these questions but our ability as a society to integrate with the AI enabled driverless cars of the future rests on us discussing these issues. We need to better understand the issues surrounding the ethics and morality of the cost of human life. We need to dig deeper into our own souls to rise above our instinct of seeking retribution for loss of life. The integration of these systems into the society depends dearly on the quality of discussion on these topics.


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Driver less cars are the solution of today's traffic scenario. It is very difficult to manage traffic system manually. Major car manufacturer's are working on the concept of driver less vehicles, however it is difficult to produce these vehicle on large scale due to their exorbitant price. However, due to recent development in communication technology driver less vehicle has potential to produce on economic scale. Driverless vehicles provide optimize fuel consumption and ensure safety. It is easy to realize the real time information about traffic using the driver less vehicle sensors. Over and above, driver less vehicle will not require parking space at public places like mall, city centers, etc. Driver less vehicle will prove a big support to disabled persons.

Driverless cars are a great concept, it is clearly true. Whenever the concept of driverless cars are discussed some of the advantages engulfs our opinion. The technology will help to reduce the city congestion, less mistakes on the road, car can be converted to an interactive room with people facing each other and drunk drivers would also be a thing of the past. The opinion shared is worth discussing. It is one of the crucial decision that mankind has to take about driverless cars, robots and artificial intelligence system. It is also one of the demerits of the driverless cars that the author has shared which is as severe as other disadvantages of driver less cars like drivers loosing jobs, hackers getting into the vehicle's software, out of the price range of most ordinary people, great news for terrorists and what not ! But as any problem has a solution, we can think that even the implication that is discussed in the blog can be countered by imposing speed limits, journey duration and coordinated traffic movement in the driverless vehicle. The driverless concept is a big leap towards passenger safety and fuel conservation but at the same time it is too early to launch the technology as many simplifications are required to counter the implications of driverless cars.

Driverless cars are much safer than human drivers. But unlike cars with drivers driverless cars will not allow humans to make a decision whether to protect themselves or harm others in certain untoward situations. In otherwords manufacturers' viewpoint is that driverless car technology will be able to make a "better" decision than humans by diminishing the probability and severity of accidents via advanced sensors and faster response times. It is expected that these sensing technologies will be able to evaluate the size, weight, type and speed of the object accurately. To reach such a level of accuracy plethora of technological sophistication is required so that the systems can handle such challenges accurately, reliably, and consistently. As per a 2015 report from business line most road accidents in India involve heavy vehicles, but the highest number of grievous injuries and deaths are found in accidents involving four-wheelers. So in such a scenario driverless car can come to the rescue and prevent the number of probable four wheeler accidents. However, even after developing such smart cars in future the issue which will be still prominent in driverless cars is that “in case of any accident or fatality who is morally and ethically responsible for the accident”. To sum it up the future of driving is driverless cars. But the economics and feasibility of driverless cars is still a distant dream. We have to wait and watch the technological advancements which will unfold in future and make driverless cars a mass market in future.

Hello Sir, Enjoyed reading your article and an interesting article indeed. The issue you highlighted is one that has been bothering insurance industry, among others, for quite some time. Google has been long testing Toyota Prius on public roads, and has been quite successful. Many others have also introduced (or are about to) their own version of driverless cars, but as correctly pointed out by you, one of these days, these unmanned vehicles will collide with a person or another car and someone would have to take blame for it. Who will compensate for the damage? And so, the question arises, whom to charge the premium related to use of a driverless car? Should a vehicle owner be given discount, because the manufacturer bears the liability now or will it be the other way around? The question does not end here for insurance companies, with the added dimension of these cars, insurance rates would have to be recomputed; actuarial data for which is certainly not available. New products of insurance would have to be developed; for example: a computer chip manufacturer (which would go into the car) will now need a ‘Commercial auto liability cover’ which previously would have been unnecessary. For individuals, would driverless cars mean less premium or high? One can now argue that since the driver is not at fault, he/she should be charged less premium. But how do we certain that a licensed driver does not drive any other vehicle, which could be a “normal” vehicle? How would the government differentiate when granting driving licenses? We’d have a long list of questions if we were to sit down ponder on this scenario further. Although it may seem that we still have a long way to cover before answering these questions, the pace at which technology has grown in last 2 decades, we’d be fools if we do not start thinking now.

Woah!! Such a thought provoking article. I have been following the latest developments in this segment and was elated by every positive news in the industry. But your article has given a new perspective to this domain. As you have rightly pointed out – the implications are huge. The questions that you have raised are making me think- are we going in the right direction? On one hand- I think in a country like India where a lot of people die every year in car accidents and cases of road rages leading to fatal fights are rising - driverless cars could have been an answer to the problems. But after reading your article I think of what might the implications be. What if a driverless car takes a decision to crash itself and kill the passenger rather than hitting people who were wrongly crossing the streets? What if the other vehicle wrongly comes in way and driverless car makes a decision to crash itself in order to save that vehicle? Who will be responsible? The Manufacturer? The Engineering Team? The Government or the Buyer who bought it without realizing the implications. With the speed of development in driverless cars – governments should be ready. Governments across the world should have a Central body monitoring this industry. There should be laws, limits and regulations in place. Let’s be ready – machines are coming !

Dear Sir, The controversy surrounding driverless cars is natural. As you have opined, there is a practical issue of accountability in case of an accident involving such vehicles. Taking decisions in a life-death situation is not an objective one that the smart program can simply gurgle out. The sensitivity of such decisions makes employing a driverless car impractical. Eventually no amount of ease and comfort can outweigh the risk to life. Though human errors also lead to accidents, it is reassuring to know that there is a fair chance of a subjective head riding behind the steering wheels. Government regulations and penalty systems can be designed to keep checks. But the stakes are still too high. The discussion of driverless cars leads me to a similar controversy surrounding surgical robotics. Surgical robots like the da Vinci surgical system developed by Intuitive Surgical, a California company, have long been in practice. While the robot has the advantage of causing less pain, fewer scars and reducing chances of infection, it has faced several lawsuits for death and injury caused during surgery. Medical fraternity is of the opinion that the errors are only a small fraction of the total surgeries. Errors are any way possible even by a surgeon. But people are discomforted by the thought of being operated upon by an unaccountable entity. You would see how similar this case is to that of driverless cars. In fact all similar technologies involving smart machines will be subject to similar music. And why should they not be? Technologies have eventually been invented to better human lives. Though surgical robots continue to be used, given the quantum leap they have achieved in surgical procedures, driverless cars are unlikely to be treated the same way. I sign off with this note, Let us define technology space in our lives, not have lives spent on taming technology.

Yes driverless cars will be the new trend in the near future, even the much-anticipated emergence of driverless trucks could prove a boon for today’s drivers. The trucking industry faces a seemingly-chronic shortage of commercially licensed drivers, and the major industry group, estimates huge demands of new drivers in the world over the next decade. The industry also faces high turnover and low interest from younger workers. Now consider one possible future that could occur soon, where autonomous trucks travel highways with a human monitor in the cab who can assist with particularly challenging driving like navigating city centres and ensure goods are delivered safely. Since the vehicles can operate for much longer periods without stopping, fewer total drivers would be needed, helping to alleviate the shortage. The jobs that remain could be less fatiguing and require shorter stints away from home again, because the truck can operate almost constantly. Much depends, of course, on how both technology and regulation evolve, but we may find that there is a soft landing, as the current generation of truckers ages out and self-driving systems mature and become more widely adopted. A balanced approach means acknowledging that, yes, rideshare drivers in urban areas are likely going to see job changes and job pressures. Long-haul truckers, too, although likely later and more slowly. But it also means appreciating that new, potentially higher-value jobs are also likely to emerge, and that there can be society-wide benefits to these changes. Throughout history, automation has often helped increase labour productivity and focused workers on the higher value-added elements of work. Just think how factory automation has reduced the back-breaking parts of many jobs and shifted the emphasis toward higher-skilled machine operating. Similarly, why wouldn’t we want drivers to do more valuable, productive work, provided we can ease the transition for those displaced?

Technology is the drumbeat of the day. The solution to most of the problems today is technology. Technology is everywhere, making our lives as easy and simple as it can get. The present article happens to touch upon a very important issue which may pose a big problem in the years to come – the problem of accountability and liability in case of accidents in a driverless car. Yes, wake up and smell the coffee: Driverless cars are here and they are for real. Driverless cars bring a host of benefits along with itself including reduction in traffic, reduction in accidents as it minimizes the chances of human error (which accounts to a considerable percentage of the cause for such accidents), mitigates parking problems, helps saving fuel, helping the differently abled section of the society, increases safety conditions, helps building a cleaner environment etc. However, just like there is no rose without a thorn, driverless cars are also not free of negatives. Alongside the pros, the cons that come with driverless cars is the issue of pinning liability when an accident occurs i.e. addressing the quandary of accountability & liability in a driverless car situation. In my opinion, addressing liability is also not an issue as even currently within the scheme of the Indian Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, the law is wide enough to punish all parties who are directly or indirectly responsible for the accident. Law seeks to penalize anybody who causes or allows the vehicle to be used in an unsafe manner that led to the accident. Hence addressing the issue of liability in a driverless car situation is not alien or difficult. Fundamentally, the concept of indirect liability exists even today, hence in order to address the issue of liability in a driverless car situation, all that is required is to tweak the current legislation to impose joint and several liabilities on the owner, the manufacturer and person who allowed the use of the vehicle in such a condition which led to the accident. Irrespective of how effectively we address liability through “causes or allows”, I believe that with technology nothing is impossible and designing full proof driverless cars is not a distant dream. We can strive to make the technology so robust such that there are zero errors. But can that happen? Technology - Can we rely on you for a seamless, perfect and flawless experience?

Sir, it was great reading your views on issue which will be soon a widely contested issue for lawmakers across the globe. Self-driving cars are no more science fiction and have quite literally developed into advanced machines which can drive a corpse across the state. The biggest challenge in the present day is wrapping our heads around the ethical paradox self-driving cars present. The technology has already reached a point companies could start churning out cars without steering wheels or breaks, but this isn’t possible because of the various ethical dilemmas and consequent legal hurdles that self-driving cars present. Though these impediments and the reasons mentioned may portray these cars as a sinister innovation, they are in all probability poised to change our world for good. The number of lives lost every year in road accidents is staggering and therefore, self-driving cars will save a lot of lives each year. Then there’s the problem of urban congestion, be it any city finding a parking spot in peak hours is quite a task. Driverless cars might take car-sharing and pooling to a new level which might even make the concept of owning a car in the city obsolete. Imagine getting out of your favourite restaurant and finding a driverless car emerging to chauffeur you to your home. No hassles finding a parking spot and women don’t need to risk a late night cab ride. The benefits of this technological revolution are unfathomable and it will be compelling to see how the world embraces and puts this technology to use.

The concept of autonomous cars has been in the public imagination for quite some time. Now for the first time it is no longer a question of whether but rather a question of when. The way I see it, the adoption of driverless cars puts forth more questions than answers. There exists a vast grey area encompassing the spheres of law, economics and politics with regard to regulation of driverless cars. Driverless cars will not succeed until they sort out the question of legality with regards to insurance and accidents. At present a driver is insured and therefore liable. If the driver is no longer driving the vehicle and is therefore a passenger, that currently does not require insurance, then surely, he or she no longer requires insurance, so who is liable? Is it the vehicle manufacturer? If it is, then the costs of vehicles will rise almost certainly. Or is it the company that wrote the software that runs the car? Also, if an individual is no longer the driver do they need to pass a driving test? Again, is the current age limit no longer valid if everyone is essentially a passenger? It is safe to conclude that a lot of questions need to be answered before the reality of autonomous car travel becomes a viable certainty.

Alphabet, Google's parent company, announced about its self-driving technology was ready for commercialization in Donald Trump's summit meeting in December, 2016. In the glorious future, we are assured that driverless cars will save lives, accidents, ease congestion curb energy consumption and lower harmful emissions. Another thing is people on the road often get road rage making them angry which causes them to do stupid stuff. People also get distracted very easily. In country like India where a lot of people die every year in car accidents and cases of road rages leading to fatal fights are rising, these cars may be the answer. Blind and physically-challenged humans can drive these cars. For parents, having a computer deal with stress of the school run, might offer calm on a busy day. Also, there is an additional safety advantage for women who worry about late night car rides. Most of the times, the cab drivers make up the cost of the rides and such cars would naturally make the rides cheaper. No one really knows what traffic would be like when significant numbers of driverless cars are on the road. People with modest automotive needs could simply summon rides when needed, rather than wasting money on cars that spend much of their time parked in driveways. On the other hand, in an age of job insecurity, driving has become the default way that many people. So, the effect of this version of job destruction will be harsh and require redistribution. There are also safety issues, entire system depends upon the internet. A terrorist attack or even a large solar flare could knock everything out. The more interconnected we are, the more vulnerable we are. We can't be confident in these cars until they are tested in real life. They need to be taken on rural roads, winding roads, highways and big cities to see how well they perform. If they can't perform well in these areas then they shouldn't be allowed on roads. I also think that we can improve in any of the areas that the cars aren't good at to make them able to drive the roads safely and accurately.

It was really interesting to read about this trending topic and know your views about the same. The technology to deploy driverless cars especially in the US has created a buzz all over. These driverless cars are marvellous products of Artificial Intelligence. They are designed with machine learning characteristics, high level computing and advanced algorithms. These autonomous vehicles are a boon as they can save a lot of fuel and can help bridge a technological gap however the recent increase in the number of accidents of these cars (as mentioned in the article) is actually very thought provoking as it demands an answer to the question that how safe these driverless cars are? To understand this, we must understand how such softwares respond in case of a dilemma on the road. Will it prefer hitting a child crossing a road or prefer hitting a tree instead? How are the ethical values programmed and designed in these softwares? But above all the bigger question is as described in the article, who is to blame in case of such accidents. Though human errors also lead to car accidents but there is an assurance that there is someone who is accountable for this tragedy. To tackle this mystery we must understand that robots cannot experience the road rush or they can’t admire the beautiful journey but they can still commit mistakes. There can be two scenarios in which a driverless car accident has occurred. First, is when the sensors or actuators designed to simulate real time effects do not correctly interpret or rather understand data. As the input data fed into the system is wrong, the output is dangerous and sometimes even fatal for other people involved in the tragic accident. Second, is related to ethics, driverless cars have no clue as to which life is important and how to make decisions if two living objects come in front of the car. Therefore algorithms will be built around the fact that if car has to take decisions should it hit the pedestrians and kill them or should it try controlling speed level and save them from a near death incidence. Now, we all understand clearly coding ethics and emotions in a machine is an extremely difficult job and even though the scientific and technological advancements are successful in creating such a marvel we can never predict what can happen on a packed road. Humans drive in an uncertain manner and there is no pattern attached to it. Therefore creating a logic simulation around all such permutations and combinations is nearly an impossible task. So even though these driverless cars are safe and reduce chances of death, scientists refuse to accept a very important fact that people can be killed or tragic accidents can occur not by human error but by machines itself.

Driverless cars have captivated the automotive industry and have sparked a race between companies in developing this marvelous product of technology. News pertaining to artificial intelligence in cars have been surfacing almost daily with new breakthrough every time. However, auto-technology giants including, Google, Tesla, Uber etc. have been facing the critical matter of accidents with these cars. More importantly, how laws are expected to change given the lesser involvement of human and more dependency of machines in daily activities. The above article, clearly highlights this issue. Tesla has held excellent reputation for safety, however, the 2016 fatal crash of Tesla’s advocate of ‘Autopilot’ posed serious questions if humanity is ready for such technology. Furthermore, Tesla did not specify who was responsible for the crash: “Neither autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.” The autopilot features have since been closely scrutinized by government regulators. Although no lawsuits have been filed in connection with such cases, but the pace at which this technology is developing such events are expected to rise. Taking this a step ahead, there is also a serious moral dilemma hidden within. In the event of serious accident, one has to make critical choices involving lives. Since now the machine handles it, essentially the owner lets the technology decide which lives to save in such events. At present, the utilitarian ethics as followed by the law, hold the owner of the car liable in case of accidents but software malfunctions are a responsibility of the manufacturer. The grey area however, remains. Lawyers do see a potential opportunity and a fertile ground for developing new host of defendants. Another critical area which is expected to take a hit is the insurance market. Since, premiums are calculated based on risk involved, artificial intelligence and new age auto-technology is expected to remove majority of human error from vehicles. Both auto-insurers and health-insurers will see huge declines in revenue with the advent of such technology. The days of the future do look promising but technology will make fundamental values more complex. Driverless cars would definitely be beneficial in improving motor safety, reducing congestion, saving fuel costs however, there is going to be a notable shift in the legal and economic aspects of the industry. Predictions from prominent figures say humanity is expected to reach singularity by the age of 2040 meaning artificial intelligence would surpass human brainpower. This would deem a disruptive transformation in human capability and technological industry as a whole. Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have been really critical about research projects related to these and have discouraged Google and Facebook in pushing boundaries and causing damage beyond repair. These are exciting times for all of humanity and in coming years the smallest events would paint a different future altogether.

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