Driverless cars: who's in control?Sunday 23 October, 12.00 - 13.00 , Frobisher Auditorium 1 Technology and ethics
The dream of driverless vehicles has existed since at least the 1930s when science fiction writer David H Keller wrote his story ‘The Living Machine’. The benefits seem clear; from allowing us the prospect of the more efficient use of travelling time to reducing the risks to car occupants, pedestrians and other road users. And the relevant technology has rapidly developed since the 2004 DARPA Grand Challenge, when none of the competitors completed the course and the furthest distance covered was a mere seven miles. Over the past year or so, public road testing of fully automated systems have become common, and electric vehicle innovator Tesla has introduced a software update to some of its vehicle models allowing a semi-autonomous ‘autopilot’ mode. Driverless vehicles have moved beyond the ‘lab phase’ and are likely to appear on ‘a road near you’ soon. While automated vehicle pioneer Google has had its vehicles involved in only minor collisions, Tesla gained notoriety with the death of Joshua Brown driving a Model S, whose ‘autopilot’ controlled car failed to spot a large white truck. Many commentators who expressed concern over the maturity of the control technologies before that event might feel vindicated. Critics of fully automated systems question whether automated systems can ever make the split second moral judgements required in many situations. Even if they could, can mere sensors provide the kind of sensory input that allows human to anticipate events?
More prosaically, traditional manufacturers like Ford, BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota and even GM may be in a better state than a decade ago, but profit margins are still generally low. And even if they can make driverless cars work economically, do they have the courage to deal with the legal minefields that a mass rollout of autonomous systems will involve? Do the ‘new kids on the block’ such as Google and Tesla in contrast have the attitude which could confidently take on such setbacks?
Is the impulse to develop automated vehicle systems more about squeezing more from the existing relatively dilapidated infrastructure, especially in urban areas, than developing a bigger and better infrastructure we need? Will driverless cars liberate us from gridlock and make driving safer, faster and more enjoyable? Or are they a technological dead end, economically impracticable and fundamentally unsafe?
freelance automotive industry writer & specialist; future tech specialist
head of transport and manufacturing, Institution of Mechanical Engineers
digital business consultant and writer; co-author, Big Potatoes: the London manifesto for innovation
principal technologist - automated transport systems, Transport Systems Catapult
Driverless cars pose worrying questions of life and death, Andy Sharman, Financial Times, January 2016
Machine Morality: Computing Right and Wrong, Sherwin Yu, Yale Scientific, May 2015
How Will Driverless Cars Make Life-Or-Death Decisions?, NETNebraska, May 2016
The driverless car and the fall of man, Norman Lewis, Spiked, March 2015
How to Raise a Moral Robot, Bertram Malle, LiveScience, March 2015
Driverless car study outlines public divide, Philippa Oldham, Institute of Mechanical Engineers, June 2016
Autonomous and Driverless Cars, Philippa Oldham, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, January 2016