Business & Ethics

Driverless cars – challenges beyond price, adoption and performance

A lot of excitement and concern is around driverless cars today. Tesla, Google, Apple, automobile manufacturers, starts ups are investing billions in a technology which is expected to transform the transportation sector in the coming years. Tectonic shifts are expected in the employment in the industry, automobile buying behaviors, shared economy and even cars becoming a utility rather than possession.

However, beyond all these, there are some questions which are slowly popping up around the concept, and needs to be addressed as we progress. Here are my top five picks:

1. Whom does the car protect in case of an untoward incident? How do we design the software? Will the car always protect the driver? Or the co-passengers? Or the pedestrians? What will happen if the choice is between hitting an income truck vs. a bunch of people on the road?

Some people are calling this as “deciding who will die, and writing a code around that”. This will be a moral and ethical quagmire.

2. Who is responsible for anything which happens to the car? Today the driver is first port of law for the law enforcement authorities unless some mechanical malfunction is proved.

But how do we decide going forward? Especially given manual override is always an option? And what happens when a driverless car has involved another entity managed by a human (like a driven car)? Will the manufacturer be held responsible or the person on the driver’s seat, or the other car driver? What happens if there is no one on the driver’s seat? Or for that matter, the driverless car is being operated by a ride provider? These are some of many questions that need to be addressed as we go forward.

3. Who audits the software? All of these are being developed as proprietary software, and will only be audited based on anticipated used cases. The same is the case with for example aircraft, trains, ships or missiles. But the first three are always on tracks away from people, and the missiles are almost never used on civilians unless there is a war.

However, cars will always be on the road, which is shared by people almost all the time. And the possibilities of the mishap cases are technically infinite, as every person on the street thinks differently. So however much we may plan, there will always be a gap in the logic. How do we ensure the safety of such proprietary software’s, whose malfunction can turn a vehicle into a killing machine – maybe even for the people inside the car?

4. Who will ensure that cars are not hacked, and controlled for nefarious use (either individually or in large numbers)? What do we do in such a case? Will there be some remote control which will be activated in case such situations are suspected? What will happen in case there are false alarms?

With the number of cases where automobiles have turned itself onto the passer-bys in recent past, such possibilities are more real today than ever before. Today individuals are involved today and already really bad, juts imagine of many cars turn rogue at the same time.

5. What will be the impact of human civilization? Today car and house are possibly the two most common aspirations for people across the world. People, especially in the developing and underdeveloped countries, spend their lifetime in fulfilling these desires, and thus they are significant drivers of one’s pursuit of happiness.

What happens if one of the two is no more relevant? Add to that the whole psychology of belonging to an automobile, the sense of being responsible while driving others around, the whole expertise of the journey with its human frailties and uncertainties. What happens if all these vanishes? Will society move one step closer to robotization? And how will people react to all that?

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