The 50th Consumer Electronics Show is officially a wrap and once again the “C” in CES could have easily meant “car.” The conference proved that the automotive industry is merging with the high-tech sector to create a hybrid approach to personal mobility. The autonomous vehicle will be here before we know it, bringing with it unsolved technological and social problems associated with this unexplored territory.
All of the hype around driverless vehicles has me thinking beyond the traditional ethical questions around these new “intelligent contraptions.” For example, how will driverless cars react to situations such as jaywalkers unexpectedly walking in front of the vehicle? These questions are definitely worthy of debate, however, there’s a social element that no one seems to be considering.
A recent study from UC Santa Cruz explores the impact of human social behavior on driverless cars, and the potential for creating havoc (or the “crosswalk chicken game” as they have coined it). In other words, if you knew that autonomous vehicles are programmed to avoid hitting pedestrians, why wouldn’t you ignore the rules and simply walk into traffic?
There’s an unspoken social contract between drivers and drivers and pedestrians. The majority of experienced drivers consider the law more of a guideline. Think about it – who really drives 55 mph on the highway or comes to a complete stop at a stop sign? Yes, most experienced drivers know when to get out of the left lane to let another driver who is going faster pass. Legally, though, is that required? Most pedestrians don’t always wait for the crosswalk “walk” signal and almost instinctually know how far to “push it” when dealing with an approaching car. We have not only created laws to address these issues, but have developed a social layer above the law that guides the complete behavior of the road.
On the other hand, autonomous vehicles will obey the exact letter of the law. They will travel at exactly 55mph, come to a complete stop, etc. While this may seem like a smart approach, there will be a time (and it may not be for a while) that driverless cars and human drivers will share the road. This overlap might actually slow things down quite a bit as there is no meaningful communication between the human driver and the computer-guided car.
In fact, there may even be a time where autonomous cars will have trouble communicating with each other. In theory, they may be programmed to not cut off another car but different manufacturers may develop different approaches. For example, a Chevy driverless vehicle may know not to cut in front of another Chevy, but it might cut off a Ford to optimize its route. In that scenario, there is no acknowledgement to the other driver letting them know it’s OK to cut in – or more importantly, that it’s not. Conversely, as human drivers, we conform to a sort of hive mentality, instinctually “going with the flow” of the traffic situation we are in at that particular time.
Ultimately, we are left with a bigger question: What will happen for those who enjoy the pure joy of driving? This potential upheaval will prove to be difficult for some folks. Eventually, the road will be a mixture of vehicles as mobility “tools” and drivers who want to drive. There will be a multitude of algorithms developed to help guide this new generation of cars into society, but an equal effort will need to be placed on understanding the relationship between drivers, pedestrians and machines. If we don’t tackle both sides of this equation, a fully autonomous fleet of vehicles may not happen for a long time.