Fleet Management

The Ethical Challenges of Autonomous Vehicles

April 18, 2017

There’s no denying that autonomous vehicles hold a great potential for improving travel safety. Statistics from the National Safety Council estimate that there were approximately 40,000 deaths caused by vehicles in the United States in 2016 alone, making it one of the deadliest years yet. Autonomous vehicles (AV’s) have the power of safety and the ability to save lives, save injuries and save property damage.

83% of drivers that participated in a recent safety-themed poll conducted by the National Safety Council responded that they are concerned about traffic deaths. This does not seem to stop many of them from texting, speeding or engaging in other potentially dangerous and reckless behaviors while driving and another recent statistic found that at least 31% of drivers actively texted while driving over the last 30 days.

Improvements Have Been Made, but Are Not Enough

Advanced driver assistance systems (ADAs) have become quite common in new vehicles.

Some of the advances in technology include:

  • Adaptive Cruise Control
  • Adaptive Lighting
  • Automatic Brakes
  • Parking – Parallel and Perpendicular
  • Blind Spot Detection Systems
  • Collision Avoidance
  • Descent Control
  • Cross Traffic Alert Systems
  • Lane Departure Warning
  • Night Vision

Using smart sensor technology, ADAs constantly monitor the surroundings and driving behavior to detect potentially dangerous situation early. These systems warn drivers of a critical situation and some of them intervene to avoid accidents automatically.

Despite all these improvements, the number of deadly accidents continues to increase annually.

Autonomous Vehicles Will Make Driving Simpler and Safer

This is only the beginning of how innovations in the automobile industry could help transform and improve lives. It’s been estimated that driverless cars could save 300,000 lives per year worldwide when fully deployed. This is many years down the line.

With AVs, there is virtually no situation in your day-to-day life that they can’t make easier, whether it’s taking your kids to school, making it to appointments or driving the elderly.

Innovations in the automotive industry have the potential to transform the lives of those with disabilities making transportation easier and more accessible than ever before.

The Big Ethical Question

One of the most sensitive subjects concerning autonomous vehicles is the ethical one.

Imagine the following scenario: an AV is driving you and your family to a restaurant on the other side of the city. After turning around a corner, the car is about to collide with a group of pedestrians who are jaywalking. The AV could either hit them or drive into a wall. What should the car do?

How should the autonomous vehicles be programmed to respond to these types of situations? Should they risk killing the passengers for the greater good or should they protect them at all costs? Does the AV calculate potential loss of life vs. injury and the quantity and make the decision? Would you ride in an AV programmed to sacrifice your life if the right fact patterns occur?

One option could be operating systems that would allow those in the driver’s seat to regain control of the vehicle in case of emergency situations. However, this would still not be reassuring enough in critical situations. Complications could easily arise, such as deciding who was at fault and in which cases the vehicle could be the sole one to blame for an accident.

Integrating AVs with Today’s Infrastructure

When it comes to automobile technology, driverless cars have become a certainty. The only remaining questions are WHEN it is going to happen and WHAT are we going to do in the meantime to accommodate and integrate AVs while the vast majority of vehicles are operated by humans texting, calling and being distracted?

Technology improvements could potentially save countless lives and dramatically improve people’s driving experience. Safety enhancements, reduced traffic, increased productivity, and fuel savings are only a few of the benefits just around the corner.

Technology comes with issues and threats just as credit cards, email, and banks do. Hacking and loss of vehicle control are two real concerns that must be taken into consideration.

Every piece of technology is vulnerable in one way or another, and cars will not be the exception. Regulations will need to be enacted to make sure vehicles are safe.

The NHTSA Federal Automated Vehicle Policy can be found here: www.transportation.gov/av

For now, the situation is still hypothetical. We’ll just have to wait and see what the future holds for us, but autopilot, radar cruise, and Uber AVs have quickly turned theory into reality and the next massive leap forward in vehicle technology is toward inter-connected AVs.