The ethics of driverless cars is a tough topic to address because many tragic dilemmas cannot be resolved without inevitable casualties. Even though the majority of virtual scenarios include extreme cases where the car has to decide who to kill, the real-life incidents show that there is a lot of backlashes linked to self-driving cars, albeit the low frequency of traffic accidents that involve driverless vehicles. One of the most recent tragedies that occurred in the City of Tempe, Arizona, showed that the inability to follow specific ethical standards and conduct a detailed overview of all possible scenarios could lead to death.1 The ethical quandaries of every intersection, crosswalk, or even the most mundane turn prove that the majority of companies working on driverless vehicles are merely not ready for specific situations that could cause human casualties.
The background of the issue also revolves around the idea that the existing self-driving car policies are not paying enough attention to the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. This creates a conflict of interest between car passengers and all the other traffic participants. As the existing research shows, a driverless vehicle is not able to react quickly when it is necessary to prevent a crash or a human death (for instance, if a child runs onto the road).2 3
This actually poses a lot of additional questions to the engineers who have to establish a driving speed that is safe enough while also not sacrificing the capability of mobility too much. The trade-off that engineers have to make between the environmental impact and mobility have caused Uber to experience legal and moral backlash linked to human death. The current paper reviews the case of how Uber failed to maintain the safety of both passengers and pedestrians and outlines the future of self-driving cars after a death-causing accident.
The Case of Uber
When driverless cars started taking over the market a few years ago, several companies began their tests, as the benefits of introducing autonomous cars to the public roads looked rather promising. Uber was one of the companies that invited several companies to assist them in terms of testing driverless cars and putting them on the national roads. One day, a car operated by Uber struck and killed a woman in Tempe, AZ, even though there was a backup emergency driver behind the wheel.4
Ultimately, Uber became the first company whose driverless vehicle killed a pedestrian when the autonomous options of the vehicle were active. Right after the unsuccessful testing in Tempe, all Uber’s operations related to driverless vehicles were suspended (including Toronto, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco). Right after the tragedy, the management of Uber released a statement where they mandated the presence of safety drivers in all autonomous vehicles.
The problem is that the presence of a safety driver who would be able to take control of the vehicle in case of an emergency should have been a part of the initial testing standards. Unmanned driverless vehicles are in no way responding to either moral responsibility concepts or legal and regulatory dimensions of the existing laws on autonomous vehicles. This means that even though driverless cars could have been a business-friendly asset helping the state’s (Arizona) economy, the company (Uber) should have taken care of the ethical dilemmas prior to completing any field tests in the streets of Tempe.
It is also important to notice that there was a collision in Tempe in 2017 that involved a driverless vehicle and another car with a human driver behind the wheel.5 The city police ignored the situation and disapproved of the need for additional safety regulations, as it was concluded that the accident occurred owing to the human driver’s fault.
Uber’s decision to suspend any testing activity related to autonomous vehicles seems like a responsible step. Still, the lack of prior judgment and risk assessment (coupled with the absence of precautions across the state police) shows that the company was not ready for complex scenarios that could cause severe backlash in both legal and ethical terms. The accident that took the life of a pedestrian arguably could have been prevented if the company took the additional time to come up with enhanced enforcement measures. The overall state of the driverless vehicle market also shows that Uber was not the only party that disregarded the increasing responsibility that came with the release of autonomous vehicles onto public roads.6 The fatal crash in Tempe caused other developers of driverless cars to gather more information and conduct more closed tests prior to releasing autonomous vehicles on the same roads with human drivers.
The question of legal and regulatory dimensions of driverless cars paired with the idea of ethical responsibility yet has to be answered by the developers. In 2016, a man died to a traffic accident when an autopiloted Tesla crashed into a tractor-trailer. The investigation showed that there were no defects in Tesla’s system, meaning that the dilemma of driverless cars could not be resolved by developing flawless applications and entrenching proper logic into all the vehicle’s structures.7
The Tempe crash has already drawn a lot of attention to the value of self-driving cars, which leaves Uber partially responsible for the future of self-driving cars that have been expected to fill the streets in the nearest future. With the general public now responding to driverless cars with not so much enthusiasm, Uber is going to approach their disruptive technologies with an excessive amount of precautions. This is a positive outcome that is based on human negligence, irresponsibility, inattentiveness to detail, and the ultimate death of a person that was not related to Uber or driverless vehicles in any way.
The Possible Future of Self-Driving Cars
As the experience of Uber shows, many ethical and legal pitfalls have to be addressed before conducting field testing of driverless vehicles. This hints at the idea that more companies that rely on the driverless vehicle technology have to put more effort into predictive operations to protect pedestrians and passengers. Instead of rushing into the market of autonomous vehicles, Uber, Tesla, Google, and all the remaining companies have to add as much flexibility as possible to their driverless car software and applications.
In order to evade ethical issues and legal backlash in the future, Uber might be interested in collecting feedback from the society to see how other traffic participants and driverless vehicles could balance their competing interests on a long-term scale. As of now, the concept of totally safe self-driving cars seems to be an unreachable objective because mundane traffic situations still pose a threat to everyone, including the passengers of autonomous vehicles.
Herrmann, Andreas, Walter Brenner, and Rupert Stadler. Autonomous Driving: How the Driverless Revolution Will Change the World. New York: Emerald Group Publishing, 2018.
Lin, Patrick, Keith Abney, and Ryan Jenkins. Robot Ethics 2.0: From Autonomous Cars to Artificial Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Lipson, Hod, and Melba Kurman. Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016.
Thagard, Paul. Mind-Society: From Brains to Social Sciences and Professions (Treatise on Mind and Society). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Zon, Noah, and Sara Ditta. Robot, Take the Wheel: Public Policy for Automated Vehicles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016.
- Patrick Lin, Keith Abney, and Ryan Jenkins, Robot Ethics 2.0: From Autonomous Cars to Artificial Intelligence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 113.
- Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman, Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016), 18.
- Noah Zon and Sara Ditta. Robot, Take the Wheel: Public Policy for Automated Vehicles (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016), 67.
- Andreas Herrmann, Walter Brenner, and Rupert Stadler, Autonomous Driving: How the Driverless Revolution Will Change the World (New York: Emerald Group Publishing, 2018), 90.
- Paul Thagard, Mind-Society: From Brains to Social Sciences and Professions (Treatise on Mind and Society) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), 25.
- Herrmann, Brenner, and Stadler, Autonomous Driving, 96.
- Thagard, Mind-Society, 41.