One of the great promises of driverless cars is a huge reduction in the number of deaths and serious injuries on our roads. This is because these vehicles will be able to stick to the road rules and react much faster than people can, avoiding the human error that is generally the cause of crashes and their resulting injuries or fatalities:
Superhuman driving skills
Once a computer model is created, then it’s loaded into the car’s brain and hooked up to the rest of the car’s sensors to create real-world model of the car’s environment.
The car uses this model to make decisions about how it should respond in different situations. And because the car has sensors all around it, it has access to a lot more data than a human driver to help it make those decisions.
“There are insightful factors that get factored in. For example, if you are driving along and there’s a parked car with nobody in it, the vehicle will proceed next to that car,” Shapiro said.
“But if it sees the door is slightly open and there is somebody in it, well the expectation is that the door will open at any moment and someone will to try and get out of that car. So at that point, when the car senses that, it’s either going to slow down, or switch lanes if it can, and proceed with caution. And because it has a full 360 degrees view around the car, it can be tracking multiple objects, with much greater things happening, with much greater accuracy than any human.”
Given the huge number of people who are killed or injured from vehicle collisions each year, safety could benefit enormously from driverless technology.
— International Transport Forum (@ITF_Forum) June 4, 2018
While the occasional mistake will be made by these vehicles, the argument goes that good programming of the driverless cars will slash the number of injuries and fatalities. This article discusses the opportunity in detail.
But I say “could”, because there are going to be some very interesting trade-offs between safety and other benefits that we hope to see from driverless cars. These are covered off in this excellent recent article:
I think it’s important to understand that this outcome for our self-driving car future isn’t self-evident or guaranteed—it is going to take deliberate effort and vigilance because there are already forces at work guiding our streets toward a different, less utopian outcome.
As a matter of practical realism, self-driving cars can and will be safe only directly in inverse proportion to their marketability. That is, you can either have a safe autonomous vehicle, or you can have a mass-marketable one that drives the way contemporary human American passengers and drivers want them to drive, but not both. The reason for this is simple: humans are unsafe drivers, and the customs of the roadway reflect that.
This is something that I have mulled over for a while. If we demand an extremely high level of safety from our driverless cars (as we should), then how attractive are they going to be in dense urban environments. If people know the vehicles will stop safely, which is great for reducing the carnage on our roads, what’s going to stop pedestrians from stepping out in front of these cars all the time? This will be great for pedestrians and cyclists but possibly less great for that other promised outcome of driverless technology, using driverless cars to increase road throughput. In fact, it may well be that sticking to the rules makes being in a driverless vehicle pretty unpleasant.
Exhibit 1: the self-driving Uber that killed a pedestrian in Arizona earlier this year had its emergency braking programming disabled to “reduce the potential for erratic vehicle behavior.” Here’s an analysis of what might have happened if the safety feature were enabled.
Self-driving cars that don’t drive the way a human would drive have a “potential for erratic behavior.” They’re prone to, say, driving under the speed limit, or slowing, stopping, and avoiding potential hazards that a human might disregard. That’s erratic in relation to the current culture of the road, which is to out-drive drivers’ realistic reaction time, use the vehicle’s mass and speed as a threat to keep the way clear, and assume things will all work out.
Modern car- and road-culture expectations assume unsafe driving. When people are forced to contemplate what safe driving really looks like, the way a properly programmed robot would do it, it’s not going to sell cars. Nobody will want to own one—not if it’s going to stop at every intersection for pedestrians, even though that’s already the law. Not if it’s going to give bicycles sufficient following distance and no less than three feet of passing buffer, but also not unsafely cross into the lane of oncoming traffic, instead waiting patiently for a safe opportunity to pass, even though that’s all already the law. Not if it routinely drives under the speed limit to avoid reasonably foreseeable hazards or to adapt to road conditions, even though that’s already the law.
The inevitable, and somewhat scary, implication of this is an upcoming battle between manufacturers and regulators over safety. There will potentially be a lot of incentive for manufacturers to tilt the regulations away from safety:
The profit incentive to disregard laws and regulations is going to be just as strong, if not stronger, than a human driver’s incentive to engage in the same unsafe and socially malignant behaviors to get where they want to go quickly. Only, its going to be baked, universally, into the design of the vehicles themselves. Unless maybe autonomous car owners will get to choose whether to “be safe” or “get me there quickly” to match their own personal ethical calculus.
When a manufacturer decides it’s too “erratic” to stop for pedestrians who want to cross at an unmarked intersection, or too unacceptable to drive at speeds slow enough to be safe—and the car that doesn’t do those things sells better—will existing law prevail, or will the allure of the market bootstrap unsafe driving into a new law of the road, hard coded by car manufacturers to best suit their customers?
This is why we can’t take for granted that autonomous vehicles will be safe, but we will have to insist on it, repeatedly, and in many forums: legislative, regulatory, product engineering & design, and public opinion. As has already been amply demonstrated, compliance with existing law and local preference is not a given with all the financial incentives at play in this developing industry.
While this is a new problem in some respects, it also has many similar aspects to the last time we had a massive transport technological disruption – with the widespread uptake of cars in the early 20th century. At that time there was a major negotiation over street space between cars and others (especially pedestrians). The priority we give to cars these days is so baked in to our sub-conscious that we sometimes don’t realise how it came about in the first place. Peter Norton’s Fighting Traffic gives an excellent overview of what happened. Kent wrote about this book back in 2012:
In a nutshell Fighting Traffic tells the story of how traditional streets where changed from a place of social exchange, slow movement, and even children playing to become dominated by car movement. The fascinating part of the story was that this transformation did not happen without a concerted effort by the automobile industry. When first introduced to American cities, cars and their drivers were considered pariahs and held accountable for their actions. Local newspapers articles, cartoons and editorials depicted the automobile as a purveyor of death which included macabre imagery such as gravestones, weeping mothers, and the grim reaper. This was easy to understand since even as early as 1930 as many as 16,000 people were killed in automobile accidents every year, mostly pedestrians.
During the early days, automobiles were considered incompatible to city life and this concerned automakers. Through their local automobile associations the car industry went about to change the responsibility of road safety by placing the blame on pedestrians. This was achieved by public media safety programs, school indoctrination, and even street theatre. The most effective method for shifting the public perception was by ridiculing pedestrians. One way this was achieved was through introduction of the term ‘jaywalker’ which implied derisively to a country bumpkin-type (a ‘jay’). Any person not fully respecting the new ruler of the road would be given a card by local Boy Scouts describing their action as inappropriate, and branding them as a jaywalker. This action had the effect of changing social norms, so that eventually laws could be introduced to codify this new value system.
We’re already starting to some similar moves with driverless vehicles, walking back the promises of safety, such as suggesting we should just accept deaths and injuries are a part of the process.
Just like in the 1920s and 1930s, over the next few decades we are heading for a major renegotiation of our streets and will need to confront some pretty interesting questions.
- Will we accept that a priority on safety and “sticking to the rules” will make travelling in a driverless vehicle pretty unpleasant?
- Will we place greater priority on speed and comfort of travel, and accept frequent killings?
- Will we try to get around this problem by physically separating driverless cars from people, even if that ruins our streets? (think fences and barriers everywhere)
- Will all of this make the introduction of driverless cars just too hard?
I don’t think we can know the answer to any of these questions now, but there are huge risks that we might not end up with safer and more pleasant streets, which means we will need to be vigilant in ensuring driverless vehicles are well regulated.