Can Self-Driving Cars Ever Actually Be Legal?
You know the future has arrived when you start asking questions like, “Do computers count as drivers?” and, “If cars drive themselves, what are we going to do with all this extra time?”
But as exciting as autonomous cars are, they’re already presenting some of the most challenging legal and ethical questions of our time — to the point where serious doubts have surfaced about both their practicality and their inevitability.
Here’s a ‘crash course’ in the current moral quagmire.
Is This Feasible on a Global Scale?
Let’s answer the question first and then work backward. Yes, it’s feasible that autonomous cars will one day be the norm. But the road to this utopic future is going to be a long and difficult one.
For all our dependency on technology, people appear to have an inherent mistrust of computers. For that reason alone, the idea of automatic chauffeurs is giving a lot of people — particularly in state and federal government — reason to doubt the future of driverless cars.
However, part of the reason why driverless cars are not just feasible, but inevitable as well, is because human beings insist on incremental change. For a case in point, we can turn to California, where state lawmakers have determined that autonomous cars must have pedals and steering wheels — all the trappings of ordinary cars — in case the driver needs to intervene.
The order of the day is baby steps. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Will Driverless Cars Rob Us of Our “Ethical Backbone?”
One of the most haunting questions before us now applies to ethics. In worst-case scenarios, human drivers sometimes have to make impossible decisions in a split-second. Do I swerve? Will swerving save my life but endanger the passenger? Will taking evasive action endanger that pedestrian but take me out of harm’s way?
These are questions nobody wants to answer, and that makes it even more unfathomable that we’re ready to turn over such difficult moral quandaries to the cold calculations of a computer. It’s a given that computer drivers are more attentive, patient and safe than their flesh-and-blood counterparts, but think for just a second about the actual lines of code at work here. At some point, it may be necessary to write a piece of programming that says: This car may take an action that extinguishes a human life — if that course is necessary for the greater good.
Chilling stuff, isn’t it? We’ve already surrendered, or at least damaged, basic skills such as making change, doing mental math and reading maps, to unthinking, unfeeling technology. These are practical concerns, however. What we’re much less comfortable with — and perhaps not yet ready for — is the idea that technology could eventually do the ethical heavy lifting for us as well.
Who’s at Fault If the Worst Should Come to Pass?
One of the prevailing concerns about the advent of autonomous vehicles concerns the question of fault in the event of a collision — or, worse yet, in the event that a motorist is killed. Fault is an important thing in American culture. We’re quick to deny it, and we’re even quicker to pass it off on someone else.
Currently, 12 states (and Puerto Rico) have no-fault insurance laws. To say it plainly, this means motorists involved in an accident may petition their insurance company for financial losses, even if common sense says they’re the guilty party. And, as we know, auto accidents can be extremely costly no matter who happens to be at fault.
So what happens if computers are doing the driving when an accident occurs? It’s a question straight out of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics: Could a computerized car actually kill a human being if it was the proper course of action? This is an exciting and consequential question, and it appears we’re approaching a consensus. In early February, safety regulators in the US have determined that, yes, computers can qualify as drivers.
This is a big get for Google and other autonomous car pioneers who have been trying to put this issue to bed. This decision could help to, as it were, make for a smoother ride as autonomous technology comes of age.
A Call for Incremental Change
At the end of the day, emerging technologies have always required us to answer difficult and even seemingly impossible questions. In that way, technology is both a gift and a curse, and it’s one of many growing pains we’ve come to associate with our maturation as a species.
Take a deep breath, though. We’ll get through this, one way or another. Autonomous cars are the next frontier of unprecedented technology, but they certainly won’t be the last. For better and for worse, we have democracy on our side — that great engine of deliberation and incremental change. By the time Google, Apple and Tesla have loosed their fleet of robot cars on the world, we’ll be ready.