By Lee Gale, The Week Junior Science + Nature, 2018 (cert 15 version)
Do you claim to be the best driver on the road? Well, your crown might be slipping. In last year’s budget, Chancellor Philip Hammond proclaimed that driverless vehicles will be seen on UK roads from 2021 – and that we’d better be prepared for it.
There are clear advantages of self-driving cars. For a start, the road would be opened up to people who previously were unable to get behind the wheel. The blind, disabled and elderly would find themselves with an independence that previous generations could only have dreamed about. And Friday nights at countryside pubs would be back on the agenda.
Car manufacturers go further, believing that autonomous (self-driving) vehicles will improve our quality of life. An hour’s commute could now be used for playing video games, catching up with emails or checking the latest images on your favourite British culture-inspired Facebook page.
Waymo, a driverless-car project in the US that was started by Google, says it has been sending driverless vehicles around Arizona since 2015. Its software processes information from on-board sensors, which allows the car to create a 360-degree, 3D picture of the world. A Waymo vehicle features a small, high-resolution vision system on its roof, a dome that makes it resemble a police car, alongside a radar system and audio-detection system (so it can hear emergency vehicles). The car’s software then selects an appropriate course, choosing direction, speed and which lane to travel in. If the car doesn’t know what to do, it will pull over safely.
The trolley problem
The biggest benefit of driverless cars is that they’ve been developed to be safer than those driven by humans. Around 1,700 people are killed in car accidents in Britain every year and 94 per cent of crashes are caused by human error. Safety is at the heart of self-driving technology. However, although autonomous cars may save lives, the artificial intelligence (AI) that controls the car may, in a cruel twist, have to end life.
This moral dilemma is known as “the trolley problem” and it is an issue that must be faced by all driverless-car software developers.
Here’s the conundrum…
Your family is in its driverless car pootling along a mountain road that has a sheer cliff to one side and a wall of rock on the other. You’re admiring the scenery when, all of a sudden, ten people step into the road and your car will not be able to stop in time. Your vehicle’s AI has to make a choice. Will it save the car’s inhabitants and plough into ten people or will it swerve off the road, possibly killing everybody in the car to save the greater number of lives?
The trolley problem is a moral dilemma that was put forward by British philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967. The basic premise is this…
A runaway trolley (another name for a tram) is running out of control. Five people have been tied to the track and the tram will surely kill them. However, you are standing next to a lever, and if you pull the lever, the tram will hurtle down a different track. But as you have noticed, one person has been tied to the rail and this person will die if the tram hits them! Do you:
As decision-making goes, this is extreme. In 2011, the question was asked by the University of Michigan in the US and it found that 91% of people would pull the lever and switch the track.
Gemma Wharton, graduate engineer at Jaguar Land Rover’s self-driving car research team, says:
“This is an area that cannot be left for one automaker to determine. Ethicists, governments, councils and automakers all have a role to play in deciding a set of guidelines. At Jaguar Land Rover we will develop technology in a way that ensures the car is never faced with a dilemma to choose one life over another. However, we are anxious to adopt self-driving technology as soon as possible so we can actively save lives that are currently lost in traffic accidents caused by human error.
“Automating some or all of the driving process allows Jaguar Land Rover to drive towards a future of zero accidents, zero congestion and zero emissions. Making the road a safer place for all road users is the key motivation for development of self-driving technology. However, autonomy also offers a vast array of opportunities for customers. Not having to drive means that users could work more productively, never look for a parking space or simply sit back and catch up on your favourite series.
“There are six levels of autonomy – Level 0 to 5; 0 meaning zero automation and 5 meaning no human input. We will see Level 3 systems in the next few years and Level 5 within the next decade. At Jaguar Land Rover we are involved with many projects to accelerate the deployment of self-driving vehicles. In November 2017, we demonstrated Level 4 on public roads in Coventry. However mass roll-out of self-driving cars will require legislation, insurance, infrastructure, telecoms and other automakers to collaborate to allow fully self-driving cars to become a reality in the future.”
Christian Wolmar, transport commentator and author of Driverless Cars: On A Road To Nowhere (London Publishing Partnership, 2018), says:
“I’m a driverless car sceptic, right. Auto manufacturers are desperate to be at the forefront of technology and they know their existing models are going to wear out, particularly with diesel cars. They need electric cars and they think full automation is the next step. I don’t think it is at all. They are completely obsessed with competing with each other to get the most automated car. They’re sold in this hype – which is what my book is about.
“There’s so much implied: ‘Oh, these cars are nearly ready. They’ll be around soon.’ And then you start to check where they are now, and it’s around Level 2 or 3. Level 4 is the key one, which they can’t reach. Level 4 is a car driving itself in nearly all circumstances with a person taking over only in the most urgent cases. That is a big mountain to climb. Level 5 is with no pedals or anything – you can’t control it and it’s just got a stop button. That, I think, is unimaginable. Two cars on a single-carriageway country road. How would they sort themselves out? There are innumerable problems.
“There’s this pretence that we are bad at driving. We’re bloody good at driving. We miss a million accidents every time we jump in the car. You see these films of all these cars driving along dual carriageways and they’re very unpopulated roads, and they’re driving at 30mph and they’re all fine, but they never show you any real-life context.
“There’s another problem. If you stand in front of a driverless car, it won’t go forward because it can’t kill you. Who’s going to drive through Tottenham or Willesden at 2am when anyone can step in front of it and start pissing about? It’s never going to happen. The social aspects haven’t been properly considered, let alone the economic, political, regulatory, legal and insurance issues.
“They can’t even do the rain yet. Rain, snow and fog. Heavy rain is the most difficult one. You’d think snow would be more difficult but it’s rain. But snow is still a big problem. Driverless cars depend on road markings. So what happens in snow? I’m looking at the Waymo website now and it’s all bollocks. It’s just statements.”
Many people believe that roads would be safer if everybody switched to driverless vehicles – but it’s too soon to say when, or if, that might become a reality. In the near future, it is more likely that there will be a mix of human- and AI-controlled vehicles sharing road space, meaning that accidents caused by human error will remain an issue. On the plus side, you’ll still be able to show off your silky driving skills to the rest of your family.