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DESPITE ALL the hype of autonomous vehicles as the hot tip for 2020, I predict society’s principal winners in this won’t be those seeking enhanced personal mobility. It will be the legal profession, and the possibilities scare me.
The most complex issue with any transition to autonomous vehicles is the interface of user and autonomous control. That is, if the user is ever intended to be the driver, under what protocol should control pass over? What level of user awareness can be assumed?
Today’s smart cruise control seems to leave an open question in this regard: I’m on smart cruise and a car ahead slams on its brakes. A bell or buzzer tells me that cruise is deactivated—but, wait, what’s happening here? I was just admiring the landscape…. Or, worse yet, finishing my crossword puzzle.
Autonomous braking may lessen the user’s apparent responsibility. Or does it? Might the user have safely steered around the car ahead?
There’s also the matter of autonomous control conflicting with a user’s comfort level. It would be akin to a taxi or shuttle ride with a driver who is over- (or under-) aggressive. I suspect we’ve all experienced both extremes. However, a taxi or shuttle is a short-term thing. Autonomous car ownership is not.
What about hacking this autonomy? Automakers are already active in devising firewalls between their cars’ infotainment networks, which need to be externally linked, with the car’s electronic operation. Because of its car-to-car electronic interaction, an autonomous car is fraught with hacking opportunities.
There’s also the matter of ethics of autonomous control. Wired magazine addressed this in “Ethics settings on autonomous cars a ‘thoughtless mindset.’ ” The article brings up the Trolley Problem, a classical moral dilemma of saving one life versus saving many. The latter choice may seem better, but an automaker and its suppliers create liability, whichever course is followed.
As an example, suppose a passenger neglects to buckle up. Should an autonomous control recognize this and soft-pedal its braking in avoiding pedestrians? Or should it allow the careless occupant to crack a skull on the windshield in the panic stop? This isn’t just an ethical quandary; it becomes a legal one involving driver, passenger, pedestrians, automaker and its supplier.
It’s suggested that the manufacturer might fit seatbelt ignition interlocks. However, I suspect this comes from someone whose knowledge of automotive history, or whose memory, doesn’t extend back to 1974 and its debacle of the federally mandated seatbelt interlock.
These and other potential quandaries have been sluffed off as matters TBD through litigation. Yeah. Just what’s needed.
There’s the dream of traveling or performing one’s daily commute while reading a newspaper, texting or fooling with the laptop. Ah, but we already have a means of doing this today, without the hefty development costs, auto purchases and lawyer fees of autonomous cars. It’s called “public transportation.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015