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The Ethics Of Driverless Cars

4 min read

Self-driving cars have the potential to transform the transportation industry. However, there are ethical considerations that need to be addressed. 

It seems that the future is already upon us. Many of us may remember reading comics or watching science fiction movies depicting robot taxis or self-driving vehicles. The entire automotive industry, it seems, is on the brink of a revolution with the emergence of self-driving cars.

These vehicles are potentially life-changing, with the possibilities of making commutes safer, more efficient, and environmentally friendly. Despite the benefits, there are some underlying ethical concerns which must be addressed before we go full Blade Runner or Jetsons.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is at the centre of this revolution. We may be able to get machines to respond based on various situations, but actions based on thoughts, values and ethics are still beyond the capability of machines. There are various Real Time Operating Systems (RTOS) being used to power the AI. Some are versions of the open-source Linux operating system and some are proprietary, being developed by the manufacturers or AI developers themselves.

Safety vs EthicsThe main argument in favour of autonomous vehicles is the possibility of reducing accidents due to human error since AI does not suffer from fatigue, distractions or plain recklessness. However, if an accident is unavoidable, the AI has mere nanoseconds to decide and prioritise the safety of the passengers or pedestrians who may be affected. How would an AI value the lives of people in this case?

The AI just empowers vehicles to navigate the roads and make decisions on routes and driving patterns with minimal human intervention. But when things go wrong, we can’t just put the blame on the operating system. So in an accident, who would be at fault? Would it be the owner of the vehicle or the passengers? Or would the blame go to the vehicle manufacturer or the developer of the operating system or the company that customised the software? Clear lines of accountability in the event of an accident remains a pressing issue.

Data PrivacyUnlike people who may just want to drive from point to point without really remembering what transpired along the way, autonomous vehicles rely on an array of cameras and sensors to make decisions. This information is stored in the memory and can be accessed or retrieved. Apart from external conditions, conversations in the vehicle can also be recorded. This data should be protected from unauthorised access, hacking or unwarranted surveillance.

Security and Hacking
AI systems are not entirely immune to being hacked or affected by malware.
As AI systems become increasingly integrated into our daily lives, the potential for hacking and cyber attacks looms large. It is important that the AI systems be secured so as to protect lives and property.

Accessibility and Equity
For the initial phase at least, the ownership and access to driverless cars may only be available to a privileged few. Technology should ideally benefit all of society and not just the wealthy. Those less privileged and less mobile like the differently enabled and the elderly would clearly have their lives greatly improved from such technology. However, they may not have the means to acquire such vehicles.

With such high stakes in the automotive industry, most of the AI is kept closely guarded by the various manufacturers. Complex programming and algorithms are used in the AI decision-making process. But should the manufacturers of the AI systems be made to explain the logic behind the AI decisions? There must be a balance between the proprietary technology and transparency.

Human Oversight
Despite their name, self-driving cars may still require human intervention in certain situations. It has already been proven that the AI can’t quite decipher certain situations which were not in the existing programming. One such example was the TikTok video showing how the Tesla Model Y AI was confused by a horse and wagon in front of the car.

So the ethics in question here would be when should the human take control and when would the human be held accountable.

Autonomous vehicles can deliver much good to society, but it is important that the authorities, automotive industry, AI developers and the public come together to bring the benefits of automation for all to benefit. With a sense of ethical awareness, accountability, and empathy for all stakeholders.