People have an intuitive feel for technology. Some trust it and some do not. In the case of autonomous vehicles (AVs), the general feeling is that they will eventually be safer than human drivers. There are problems, to be sure. But AVs don’t drink and drive, apply makeup while driving, text or (as I have seen) drive on the Long Island Expressway at high speeds with a newspaper spread across the steering wheel.
That doesn’t mean that AVs are foolproof and completely safe. An October 15th New York Times editorial pointed to many of the dangers of AVs. The piece sets up the AV-specific list by pointing out that software reliability and computer security generally are problematic. Then it lists issues with AVs: They struggle in the rain, when branches are low, on bridges, and on roads with faded lane markings.
Real-world politics are an issue, as always:
Yet, members of Congress, encouraged to do so by auto and tech lobbyists, have proposed bipartisan bills that would let industry roll out automated cars more quickly by exempting them from existing safety regulations, like those that govern the performance of steering wheels, airbags and brakes, and by directing the Department of Transportation to come up with new rules instead.
The editorial then highlights what seem to be serious shortcomings of the legislation. In the final analysis, the editorial writer or writers are not against AVs. Indeed, they see great potential to increase safety and provide other benefits and options such as encouraging people — who would be able to spend their commute working or being entertained — to live further from their workplaces. The technology, however, must be eased in sensibly.
Setting automobiles and trucks onto streets is a very complex matter. The software involved has to be able to do far more than stop at red lights. TechRepublic offers a very interesting piece that builds on what it says is the well-known trolley question posed by Philippa Foot. The premise is simple. Suppose a trolley can’t stop. It is headed down a track on which five people are stranded. The only option is for the worker to switch the trolley onto a second track, on which one person is stranded. What is the ethical choice?
The story highlights ethical guidelines to AVs being developed by the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure. The report, “Ethics Commission: Automated and Connected Driving,” says that such systems must favor protecting human life over property. If injury is unavoidable, the choice cannot be based on attributes such as age or sex. The story links to the press release with a full description of the document.
The point is that the software necessary to carry out these mandates will be very sophisticated and complex. It seems unlikely that the domestic AV industry is ready.
Privacy is a deeply related issue. A huge amount of data must flow from an AV to a central source for analysis, and some of this data could be useful to crackers. A story on the topic at Venture Beat does a good job of framing the issues but doesn’t offer examples. They are not hard to dream up, however.
For instance, a family’s car that is receiving directions in Utah suggests that the home in South Carolina may be vacant and ripe for a burglary. Likewise, law enforcement would be very interested in knowing whose car was reported near a bank the night it was robbed. A person’s employer likewise would be interested in knowing if an employee visited a competitor’s office — or was at the mall when he or she should have been on a sales call. The issues get even dicier when the AV elements are linked to infotainment and onboard personal communications gear.
The scariest possible scenario is terrorism. It is theoretically possible for a massive hack to instruct a great number of AVs to perform a certain action. That doesn’t seem likely, but it can’t be ruled out.
The bottom line is that many questions remain, on many different topics and at many levels of difficulty, about AVs. Perhaps it would be wise to take our foot off the gas pedal until these questions are answered.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at [email protected] and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.