Essay: Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

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¶ … Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

The Future of Driving

According to the testimony presented to Congress by automobile industry representatives and technical experts last November, it is already clear that driverless automobiles represent the future of driving in the United States and other technologically advanced nations (Halsey, 2013). Industry experts do not necessarily agree on the estimated time frame by which the principal transition between human drivers and driverless cars will take place, with some suggesting that the first driverless vehicles could conceivably hit the roads by the end of this decade (Halsey, 2013) and others estimating a longer development period that projects their first availability a decade or more later than that (Matsalla, 2014). What seems unlikely in doubt is that the development of the related technology is perfectly consistent with predictions made a decade and a half ago by scientists like Michio Kaku (1997), and that by the middle of this century, virtually all vehicles on American roads will be driven automatically instead of by human drivers.

In principle, the evolution of driverless passenger automobiles is not different from the trends in other related areas, such as in the development and use of drones in the U.S. military (Lin, 2013) and the continuing progress toward the eventual obsolescence of human fighter pilots as the final major innovation in military aviation (Kaku, 1997). At the current rate of technological growth that continues to follow the infamous Moore's Law (Kaku, 1997), the transition to driverless cars may very well be complete much sooner than expected. Regardless of when that occurs, the proposition raises several potential ethical issues that warrant analysis and resolution.

Presentation and Analysis of Potential Ethical Issues Presented

Ethical Issue #1 -- Cost

The cost of driverless vehicles is difficult to predict, with estimates ranging from costs of an additional $10,000 per vehicle to costs as much as $100,000 per vehicle (Halsey, 2013; Lin, 2013). It is also likely that the success of driverless automobiles will require substantial investment in infrastructure to support a new transportation medium based on smart roads in much the same way that the earliest era of automobiles required government subsidies to develop paved roads, highways, and gasoline stations across the country (Kaku, 1997). Nevertheless, it is likely that for a prolonged transition period in between the introduction of driverless vehicles and their comprehensive integration and replacement of vehicles controlled by human drivers, driverless vehicles will be available differentially based on relative affluence, just as is typically true of modern technological innovations in human societies. In principle, this concern is not any different from the traditional relationship between affluence and relative access to the latest technological developments. If the general transition to driverless cars proves sufficiently beneficial to justify its support from public funds, it is conceivable that the government could promote their availability with rebates and subsidies.

Ethical Issue #2 -- Government Paternalism vs. Individual Autonomy

The prospect of replacing human drivers with driverless vehicles also raises potential issues in the area of the conflict between the right of the government to impose standards and requirements for the public good and the competing right of individuals to personal autonomy (Taylor, 1982). Specifically, in that respect, it is foreseeable that at some point, the adoption of driverless automobiles will eventually become mandatory if the earliest experience with driverless cars is considered beneficial to society. At that point, the government may impose limitations on the legal use of conventional passenger vehicles by prohibiting them altogether on public roads. Given the history of opposition to safety regulations such as seatbelts and motorcycle helmets, (let alone desperately needed changes in American healthcare), it is perfectly conceivable that any mandated transition to driverless vehicles could provoke considerably more resistance, even moral outrage among those who regard that as an example of government overreach into the private lives and decisions of the individual.

In principle, the right of the government to enforce rules is predicated on the general good associated with those rules (Taylor, 1982). If driverless cars prove safer and otherwise beneficial to society, there would be no reasonable objection to government-mandated requirements. In fact, by the time driverless cars become widely available and if they prove safer than conventional automobiles, the government would be acting in the appropriate interests of the greater good by phasing out conventional vehicles.

Ethical Issue #3 -- Legal Liability Concerns

Currently, the laws that define the respective rights and liabilities of drivers, vehicle owners, and any parties injured are harmed by a motor vehicle are well settled. One of the critical aspects of the analysis of legal rights and liabilities arising from the use of motor vehicles relates to the concept of fault in general and negligence in particular. The introduction of driverless vehicles substantially changes that calculus in that machines are not infallible but vehicular accidents caused by technological malfunctions are not fairly addressed by the same conceptual basis of liability on the part of owners of the vehicles (Halsey, 2013; Lin, 2013). As with other potential ethical issues, some of the more complicated foreseeable scenarios might arise in connection with the interaction between driverless vehicles and conventional vehicles during the transition period when many of both kinds share the roads.

There is no doubt that the transition to driverless cars would substantially change the variables associated with rights and liabilities arising in connection with automobile use. In principle, that is not different in kind from the myriad other ways that the law continually changes to adapt to changes in society, whether with respect to changing social mores about who can marry whom or who can smoke what, or what "privacy" or "ownership" of intellectual property mean in a digital world. As in other realms, the law would co-evolve with changes in transportation norms.

Ethical Issue #4 -- Personal Privacy and Misuse Concerns

To date, just about every form of new technology has proven to be vulnerable to misuse, especially in the realm of computer systems (Halsey, 2013; Lin, 2013). In that respect, the perpetual co-evolution of computer hackers and computer software developers described by Kaku in 1997 still hold very true. Hardly a week goes by without new national headlines about a major breakdown in system security or the protection of private data from unauthorized access or dissemination. As is the case with every other type of technology, driverless cars would be vulnerable to many foreseeable kinds of misuse and they could conceivably be much more vulnerable to certain specific kinds of threats (such as theft), specifically because they are unattended by live human beings. In principle, the need to consider the vulnerability of driverless cars to hacking or theft is no different from the need to consider the same types of issues in other realms of societal and technological changes. Presumably, law enforcement policies and practices would simply co-evolve with the technology in the same manner as civil law will in connection with civil liability issues.

Ethical Issue #5 -- Practical Concerns about Drivers and Driverless Cars Sharing Roads

The guidance systems of driverless cars will require them to operate in very predictable ways, such as in connection with leaving the prescribed amount of distance between vehicles based on speed, weather, and road conditions (Lin, 2013). Meanwhile, human drivers are notorious for ignoring some of those same considerations, typically following one another too closely for safety. Wherever driverless vehicles share the roads with human drivers, it is foreseeable that human drivers may take advantage of the predictability of driverless cars, such as by continually cutting in between them or taking other types of advantage, knowing full well that the driverless cars are programmed to respond prudently rather than the way human drivers would typically respond in similar situations. Knowing what we know about human tendencies, it is certainly conceivable that some drivers will take every possible advantage in sharing the road with driverless vehicles. During a transitional phase, that is virtually inevitable, although relatively easily capable of being addressed by law enforcement efforts and appropriate legislation.

Ethical Issue #6 -- Eliminating Human Judgment

Human beings are also fallible, but there are certain situations where it might be safer and preferable to have humans in control instead of robots or automated systems. Even the Space Shuttle (and the Lunar Modules that landed on the Moon) were controlled by human pilots at critical stages of flights, such as the final approach to landing back on earth and to touchdown on the lunar surface (respectively) precisely because in some situations, human judgment is preferable to robotic processes (Feynman, 1986). Therefore, the relative safety benefits of driverless cars will have to be evaluated against their comparative safety concerns (Lin, 2013). When it is fully analyzed, the elimination of the human variable from driving is likely to improve safety on the roads much more than it is likely to reduce safety on the roads (Kaku, 1997; Lin, 2013). That is because approximately 30,000 people die on American roads annually, with the vast majority… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Ethics of Self-Driving Cars.  (2014, January 31).  Retrieved March 26, 2019, from

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"Ethics of Self-Driving Cars."  31 January 2014.  Web.  26 March 2019. <>.

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"Ethics of Self-Driving Cars."  January 31, 2014.  Accessed March 26, 2019.