Automated, autonomous, driverless or self-driving – whatever you want to call them cars that can drive without the interaction of a human are increasingly talked about as the next big thing in transport and the Ministry has recently highlighted what’s happening in New Zealand around them.
They say that while the talk going around is about fully autonomous vehicles, there are actually different levels of it and increasing levels of technology are already in some cars. A good description of the different technology levels comes from the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which breaks things down to five levels as shown below. It’s noted that other jurisdictions have similar classifications.
As for actually implementing driverless cars they note that they will pose a number of challenges although one advantage is they likely mean there is no need to change existing roads. Instead the challenges are more likely to be policy/requirement related
The Ministry of Transport has a work programme to clarify the current legal situation that applies to the deployment of autonomous vehicles in New Zealand. Section 4.14 (page 25) of the government’s Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) Technology Action Plan [PDF, 431 KB]specifically relates to autonomous vehicles. This includes the following action:
Government actions to promote New Zealand internationally as a test-bed for new technologies
The Ministry of Transport, in conjunction with the NZ Transport Agency, will review transport legislation to clarify the legality of testing driverless cars in New Zealand. This will specifically consider the issues of liability associated with testing, but will not consider liability for general use.
The work programme has a range of possible outcomes – one being a law to set requirements for driverless vehicles. However, there are no immediate plans to do this. The relevant excerpt from Section 4.14 of the ITS Action Plan reads:
Internationally there is a great deal of thought being given to what laws will be necessary for the general operation of driverless vehicles. Their widespread operation will pose complex legal challenges, especially to determine liability in the event of any accident. It is not proposed that the New Zealand government will explicitly look at these legal issues at this time. Rather, the government will continue to monitor international developments and draw on this knowledge once international thinking has developed further and it is clearer if or when these vehicles will be commercially available.
One interesting thing I’ve been noticing with the driverless car debate is that many countries, states and cities all seem to be falling over themselves to be the test-bed for these new technologies – presumably in the hope that some of the big players will turn up invest money. The MoT say they have started to look at the legal issues associated with testing these vehicles. However they also say there are “no obvious legal barriers” towards testing driverless cars as “NZ Law has no explicit requirement in our laws for a driver to present”. Despite this the MoT say there have been no formal requests to test driverless cars on our roads.
While the MoT seem to be mostly thinking about how the legal issues of testing driverless cars, perhaps they should also start to have a think about other associated issues too. Some of these are highlighted quite well in a few pieces I’ve read recently.
The Ethical issues
There’s a greater issue that just liability should an incident occur but a debate that needs be decided about how driverless cars deal with accidents in the first place. This article highlights the issue well
He soon came to see both its significance and its painful complexity. For example, when an accident is unavoidable, should a driverless car be programmed to aim for the smallest object to protect its occupant? What if that object turns out to be a baby stroller? If a car must choose between hitting a group of pedestrians and risking the life of its occupant, what is the moral choice? Does it owe its occupant more than it owes others?
When human drivers face impossible dilemmas, choices are made in the heat of the moment and can be forgiven. But if a machine can be programmed to make the choice, what should it be?
Coming up with an answer to these issues could have wide ranging implications for society – but then again we’ve changed society in the past in the way we allowed vehicles to dominate our cities. The implication of driverless cars on cities is the next point
Are we solving the wrong problem?
A great piece from Peter Norton, the author of Fighting Traffic highlights that driverless cars could be fantastic and fix many of the issues we associate with our auto-dominated society – which he says came about because we focused on how best to move cars and not what is best for people or the city. Unfortunately he says that if we don’t address the issue of what we want our cities to be then driverless cars could actually make our auto-dependency worse.
In autonomous vehicles and other intelligent transportation systems, we may have a solution so powerful that we fail to pause and ask what problem such systems are best suited to solving. We may fail to ask whether the problem formulation we inherited is the right one.
If engineers continue to seek to accommodate all of motorists demands, and f they accommodate such demands much more efficiently, each car may make much more efficient use of road and parking capacity, but total demands may rise so much that even more space will be needed for road surface and for parking. In the fully autonomous vehicle, as the driver need pay little or no attention to driving, driving time may become work or play time in effect negating the time cost of travel. Autonomous cars might also safely travel much faster. Such changes might turn the 50-mile commute of today into the 100-mile commute of tomorrow. Today, people trying to travel by other modes such as walking or bicycling must contend with urban sprawl governed drivers perceptions of distance. How will they reckon with distances that have doubled again? Presumably many of them too will resort to driving. However reluctantly they turn to it, their decision will be taken as a vote for driving. Finally, as the skill demands of driving fall well have more drivers. Such trends would mean that we would continue to rebuild the world for drivers, instead of asking what world we want to live in and conforming driving to it.
If we do get the right implementation of driverless cars then the impact they could have is absolutely transformative.
The transformative potential?
This piece from Vox looks at some of the massive potential driverless cars offer. He openly says he’s being a bit utopian in his thinking on some of the benefits that could be delivered. These include that we can “right-size” both vehicles and the infrastructure needed to support them such as roads and parking. Doing that could mean more space made available for people. They also could fix the suburbs, freeing up space and allowing more development to occur all while improving air quality (assuming they’re electric).
The piece also notes that this utopia is a long way off. There are a lot of vested interests in the transport system and many of those will be reluctant to change forcing path dependence along a route we don’t necessarily want. The article also highlights that there are likely to be some substantial privacy implications.
But “smart” means information, and a city filled with sensors and trackers will accumulate a lot of information about every citizen within it. Who owns that information? Who can access it? How much will basic services like transportation hinge on the surrender of personal data? How will all that data be protected from the copious cybersecurity threats that face smart cities?
As people continue to look closer at driverless vehicles they will also continue to see there are a lot of issues that needs to be addressed. As such it could be some time before we really start seeing any serious driverless car proposals.