A Point of View: The ethics of the driverless car

Driverless car

Driverless cars are being heralded as the answer to all our motoring problems. But long-term backseat driver Adam Gopnik has a few moral questions to raise.

I do not know how to drive a car.

There - it's out. In Britain, I think this is merely a little unusual. In the US, it is positively shaming. People give you strange looks when you confess this, as though you had confessed to not being able to perform some other, wholly natural function.

Like all people with a guilty secret, I have a perfectly good explanation. I grew up within a couple of blocks of the university where my pedestrian parents both taught, and I eventually went to school there, and then right out of university I went to New York, where no one has a car, and have lived here ever since (plus a few years in Paris, where no one in their right mind would try and drive).

Find out more

Adam Gopnik
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 GMT and repeated Sundays, 08:50 GMT
  • Adam Gopnik is an American commentator and writes for The New Yorker

My wife, fortunately, grew up in a Canadian suburb and learned to drive there. She is a wonderful driver, and when we go up to Cape Cod in August for our annual three weeks by the beach, she drives the family up, and then around. And the sad truth is that by now no one wants me to drive a car - my reflexes are too aberrant, my tendency to daydream too marked. My 14-year-old daughter is firm: "I'm never getting in a car if you're driving," she says grimly. "You would be thinking about something you're writing, and then bang, it's over for us all."

But the blow to my masculinity is real. I sense that I am, even in this properly post-feminist age, in the wrong seat. Not the one (the right front in your country, the left front in ours) where generations of fathers have sat, pressing down on pedals, and cursing the competition on the road. Instead, I occupy the traditional mother's seat and fill her role - shushing the children when the driver is tired, or changing the music on the radio as the one listenable station fades out into static.

Start Quote

Human drivers are engaged in making ethical decisions as they drive, and these will have to be programmed into the software of the self-driving car”

End Quote

I feel, I'm afraid, the insult to my masculinity so much that when a cop or a garage attendant approaches the car and gives me what I take to be a slightly puzzled, pitying look, I immediately slouch down and scowl resentfully in an impressive impersonation of a veteran driver, whose licence has been taken away after a lifetime of high speed, recklessly entertaining "Dukes of Hazzard" style driving.

"Cursing the competition?" my wife just said, reading over my shoulder.

"The other cars on the road aren't competitive. And is that why you get the weird look on your face? I can't believe that your concept of masculinity involves that much petty vanity and pointless displays of competitive ego in some... self-invented contest," she concludes - not seeing that if it were not for petty vanity and pointless displays of competitive ego, mostly in meaningless self-invented contests, we would have no concept of masculinity at all.

Reading at the wheel

So you can easily imagine how excited I was when I first read that Google, the great, good search engine company out west, is many years, and many hundreds of millions of dollars into the process of developing and road-testing, and some day soon selling, the thing in life I most desire - the self-driving car. And Google isn't alone in the pursuit. Many companies are engaged in it. You will programme your destination when you set out, and the car will do the rest, even on the busiest motorway - find the exit, make the turn, maintain the speed, avoid the... well, the competition, and turn the fog lights on to penetrate the mist.

You can sit behind the wheel, if you like, and pantomime the act of driving, but the car will do all the work itself. Since self-driving cars never get tired, drunk, or distracted by their husbands trying to find a decent jazz station on the radio, Google and the other companies promise to bring road fatalities down to near-zero.

Google self-driving car

There is a problem, though, I've discovered, reading eagerly on. It is that human drivers are engaged every day not just in navigating roads, but also in making ethical decisions as they drive, and these too will have somehow to be programmed into the software of the self-driving car. Each self-driving car will have to have its own ethical engine.

Driverless cars: The latest

  • US states of California, Florida and Nevada have licensed autonomous vehicles to be tested on public roads
  • Google wants to launch driverless cars in 2017; rival Tesla Motors want to have vehicles ready by 2016
  • Other car manufacturers, including Daimler and Nissan have given a 2020 date for their own versions
  • Autonomous vehicles not yet allowed on European roads

Drivers, for instance, know that it is right to swerve to avoid an animal racing across the road, though not at any risk to their passengers. But they are also prepared to take a little more risk with the passengers to avoid a cat or a dog, which we instantly recognize as pets with human owners, than, say, a squirrel or raccoon.

Even graver ethical choices, often studied by philosophers and psychologists, regularly arise. What to do when faced with a choice between, say, mowing down a couple of bystanders and ploughing into a school bus packed with children? We compute these ethical costs and choices in an eye blink, and not just the choices but the moral reasoning behind them would have to be programmed into the self-driving car. And should there be a different module that switches on if the bus is packed not with children but with, say, ailing nonagenarians from a nearby hospice? And there are even simpler but still real ethical dilemmas that human drivers understand - say, that a speed limit of 50mph (80 km/h) on a fine day is really 60mph (96k m/h), while on a wet and foggy day, really 45mph (72 km/h). How do we programme this kind of flexibility into a machine?

It will not surprise the euro-sceptics among you that the European Union, in its own parallel self-driving car programme, is trying to solve this dilemma through a system of bureaucratically imposed obedience. What is called, almost unbelievably, the Sartre project - a joint research mission by Ricardo UK and Volvo among others and the EU - works on the convoy or "road train" model - a single truck with a human driver leading the way and up to five computerised self-drive cars following sheep-like behind. "Because they're all taking the same orders," the engineer explains, "the cars can travel just a few metres apart." Sartre is an acronym for "Safe Road Trains for the Environment", but it is a perfect tribute to the great French philosopher who ran his own ethical cafe-convoy, leading his zombie-like followers from absurdity to absurdity over many decades.

Jean Paul Sartre Jean-Paul Sartre: Hell is other drivers...

But why only Sartre? It occurs to me that, given the huge market for customised niche products these days, there should be a variety of ethical engines to install in your self-driving car. There would be many ethical apps to develop and download into the software of your self-driving Volvo. You could choose, say, a Nietzschean engine, which would drive right over everything - why not? God is dead anyway. Or the Albert Camus model, which would stall and pause in the middle of the highway while the traffic backs up behind - and then suddenly shoot off, bang, because the existential leap must be made, and some pedal struck.

The Magazine on driverless cars

There would be an Ayn Rand model ethical engine, named after the Russian-American free market fanatic, which would use chip technology to scan the bank account of each pedestrian, calculating their net worth, swerving to miss the makers, and mowing down a taker or two - who needs 'em? And there would be its technical relation, the Richard Dawkins model, which would use portable MRIs to heat-seek and discover which pedestrians you distantly share genes with, while steering you directly into the ones who are, alas, no relation. There could even be a Woody Allen ethical engine, which would start apologising as you press on the gas, and continue all the way home, and a Ludwig Wittgenstein model, which would announce wearily that there is no motor in the car anyway - all there is, is the activity of driving.

Yet the one thing that all philosophers and engineers are agreed on, is that no one is yet nearly as good, as flexible, as vigilant - not to mention as perpetually self-justifying - at these things as people are. We are our own best ethical engines. And who more expert than those of us, that small persecuted class, the non-drivers, who have been watching the road without the distraction of actual driving for years?

Sheep on the road To swerve or not to swerve

And here, I realise, is where I could really cash in. Instead of developing those ethical apps, I could become one myself. I will hire myself out as a full time on-call, ethical chauffeur, the moral rule-maker within your self-driving car. I will sit behind the wheel, just like a real driver, but making philosophical judgments rather than right turns - this raccoon lives, this bug dies, miss the school bus, run over these oldsters. I might even enforce more aesthetic ethical injunctions - say, to stop at every lookout on a scenic road, simply to admire the view.

There I will be, at last - right front or left front, depending on the country. For the first time, the guy inside, clutching the wheel - promoting the beautiful, saving the vulnerable, dooming the deserving, almost like a God... almost, for that matter, well, almost, like a man.

Follow @BBCNewsMagazine on Twitter and on Facebook

Here is a selection of your comments.

I see the driverless car as just one more item that's seen as possible, so pushed to the public as therefore desirable. As an engineer in production plants, I can't count how many controls schemes were sold to us as viable, only to find out it took years of debugging later to get them to work properly. This usually involved the normal IT (information technology) arrogance, that we should even question their scheme that didn't work. And this was with relatively simple systems, that didn't involve the public and the very real moral judgments described in this article. The media push seems overwhelmingly strong to force this technology on the public, so I foresee mandatory identifying transponders (after the fact, of course) eventually being a requirement for a pedestrian or bicyclist to wear, waiving all liability protection if it's not worn. Imagine a scene from a possible Charles Dickens story, where rich carriages race by, trampling people to death on the roadway, but with no responsibility for it. That's what it looks like to me it will turn into. (And the expense of this will also further the class divide, too.) Unfortunately, at least in this country, people already sequester themselves in their homes and vehicles, and don't walk, so the really sad thing is they may not even notice or object!

Dave Leet, Houston

His tongue may be firmly lodged in his cheek, but Mr. Gopnik's satirical scepticism about driverless technology is no more ridiculous than the arguments put forth by driverless tech opponents who aim to be taken seriously. The fact is that driverless tech can and will perform all functions and judgments as well as the most skilled professional human drivers, and far better than 99.9% of all human drivers. Anyone whose masculinity is tied up with how he drives or what he drives probably shouldn't be driving at all!

Andreas Lord, Brookline, MA

For the driverless model to work properly, in the future all cars would be able to "see" each other and "talk" to each other, so the problems you describe above may be limited. If all cars are driverless they they we don't need to worry about the human element at all, potentially. Some of the elements you specify above could indeed be an option when setting the initial journey. There could be an interim period where non-driverless cars are upgraded or taken off the road. I don't think it would be a good idea to combine drivers and computers in charge of cars. Perhaps we should move towards a "hail a car" model, where if you want to go on a journey you don't actually own a car but just hail one for the purpose, a driverless taxi if you will. Obviously without the paying the human, this would potentially be cheaper than owning your own car!

George Reynolds, Exeter

There will be no need for ethical programming. The car sensors are far more powerful than human senses, and can slow and stop for animals and humans. Why would it swerve? Swerving only occurs when there's a delay between seeing something and acting. Not a problem for a computer-controlled, camera and laser-eyed automobile.

Adam, Luton

I'm 38 and can't drive either. Out of choice more than anything else, I walk everywhere and quite enjoy using my own legs to get about, with or without public transport.

SJW, Leeds, UK

This is a very interesting discussion. I think where I stand is that there should be a built-in "overpower" feature on all of these cars, where the car still drives itself but you can still hit the brakes, gas, or turn to override the algorithm. This brings up another question, however: would people really be paying attention to their surroundings if the car drove itself? Because of this, I'm not really sure where to stand on this issue other than to say the technology is not ready yet for commercial use.

Charlie Jindra, Not given

The biggest question I have with self drive is what happens when it does go wrong? Who would be legally or morally responsible. Would you still punish the driver for what happened or would the kid or other driver be at fault. What happens in the future when the drunk crashes their car only to after switch on the self drive and try blaming it on computer error? Look at the situations we can get with sat nav's, asking people to drive up a one way street.

Stephen , Hartlepool

Your worries are unwarranted. Self driving cars will be unable to crash unless there is a terminal fault during manufacturing. The sensors these cars employ are so much greater than a human's own faculties that a potential collision will be registered and averted well before a human would even hope recognise it. Take for example the dog that darts across the road. Your car will register the animal either through its own sensors or alternatively be sent the information about the dog from other cars, or from cameras high on poles that constantly scan the roads and the surrounding area sending the information back to the cars. So your car will see the dog well before you can, your car will then instantly calculate a safe speed that needs to be achieved to avoid collision entirely without swerving and either speed up or slow the exact amount necessary down to do so. The change in speed would be so slight you would never notice it yourself. Fatal accidents on the road will be wholly eliminated once computers take over. Deaths on the road will be 0, nothing, no one will die or be hurt. Once these systems are cheap it will be illegal to drive on 95+% of roads manually because a human will be statistically infinitely more dangerous to themselves and to others and very inefficient. It will be immoral for a human to drive. As I said humans are inefficient as well as dangerous compared to computers because self-driving technology will allow cars to travel at 100-150mph safely, maintain constant speeds for longer than a human can and eliminate traffic jams. Imagine that? No more deaths on the roads, arriving to your destination much quicker, and no more traffic jam stress. Economies the world over will take a significant boost not only from the efficiency savings but also all the free time people now have to think, write, communicate and create rather than sit in front of a wheel staring a potential painful death right in the face everyday. So If I were you I Mr Gopnik I would start driving because very soon we won't be allowed to drive.

Sacha, Birmingham

More on This Story

Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

Programmes

  • A person taking a photo of fireworks on a smartphoneClick Watch

    A look at the latest gadgets which could make it easier to take the perfect night-time picture

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.