From guest writer Tom Butcher
Autonomous technology will utterly transform our relationship to cars and travel in the coming years. I think we can all agree on that.
Driverless cars are on the way and are set for testing on public roads in the UK by 2021, China by 2025 and Russia by the end of this year. At home in the US, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is currently rewriting its safety standards to allow true driverless cars onto the roads.
It’s not all easy riding though. Because this technology has never been used on a mass scale before, many challenging ethical issues have been raised, particularly around the subject of centralization.
You might not be aware at the moment but make no mistake – centralization in the auto industry is already happening. It’s coming about as a result of the ethical issues that autonomous cars are throwing up around us.
The biggest and most pressing one is the question of how an autonomous car should behave in an accident situation. Should it be programmed to privilege the lives of its passengers or of pedestrians?
The issue is most commonly known as the Trolley Problem, a thought experiment from the 1960s that has been revived in recent years thanks to the growth of autonomous technology and artificial intelligence.
Imagine you’re in control of a railroad switch.
An out-of-control trolley on rails comes careening into your section. The brakes are broken and it’s heading directly for five unfortunate people who are tied up on the tracks ahead.
But there is another section of track connected by a switch just before these people, where only one person is tied up.
What do you do?
Refuse to act and see the deaths of five people or change the switch knowing that your action will kill one to save five?
The answer you come to on this question depends on your own ethical reasoning. And that reasoning has a direct impact on the similar situation of the ethics with autonomous cars.
Regardless of the answer you reach, it seems inevitable that governments across the world will become involved to regulate the situation. After all, I can’t imagine them tolerating the idea that private companies have the right to decide who should live and die in an accident.
You would also have hundreds of thousands of driverless roads, all using different standards and systems operating on the road with no means of coordination between the two of them so some kind of central regulator (think, an air traffic control system for autonomous cars) seems inevitable in that situation.
That said, this centralization has a potentially problematic knock-on effect. It also makes it much more likely that the rest of the industry will develop a centralizing tendency. The fact that companies will be operating towards a central set of concerns means that the likelihood of further centralization of the industry grows larger.
That’s because in a centralized system, all of the movements of a car would be controlled by one body. The control center for autonomous vehicles would have full knowledge of everything about the particular car on the road, including personal details like who the passengers are and where they were going. On the surface, a centralized system would make dealing with hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles in a city a whole lot easier and quite possibly safer.
However, it would come at a significant price. In a centralized system, people would be subject to increased surveillance and would have their own personal and journey details shared with wider bodies. This increase in control is probably one of the main reasons that governments are pushing for centralization. As you can see, it’s not an issue with an easy answer.
Another way that centralization is creeping into autonomous cars comes in the form of rapidly converging, autonomous software systems. Bigger auto manufacturers are starting to centralize operations and technology to the disadvantage of smaller, independent manufacturers.
The Advanced Driver Assistance System (shortened to ADAS) in an autonomous car is equivalent to our own brain and nervous system. It’s a collection of sensors that analyze data from the surrounding environment, like radar, LIDAR, and cameras and then uses this to pilot the car safely to the required destination.
In order to meet the centralized standards that will be set by governments and regulatory bodies, it’s likely that manufacturers will need to centralize their technology in some way. That means, in effect, a centralized data platform inside an autonomous car obviously increases the chances that a centralized industry outside of it could develop.
Some companies have already made it so that ADAS data sensor chips in autonomous cars will only work in a particular brand’s system, meaning that chips cannot be swapped around interchangeably by mechanics. This lack of interchangeability obviously has an effect in terms of the viability of independent parts suppliers and a whole host of jobs across the auto supply chain.
But perhaps this centralization is just one price that just has to be paid in order to benefit from driverless cars in the long-term? What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Tom Butcher is a freelance writer, covering a wide range of topics, including finance, business and motoring. At the moment, he is helping LeaseFetcher tell the world about contract hire and leasing.
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