Letting the machine take over – Self-driving cars

They say man’s best friend is his dog. Could that possibly be replaced by his car in the future?

Google self-driving carSo now it’s official. Experts opine that if the self-driving car becomes mainstream, we are going to have to contend with the automotive variation of Asimov’s three laws of robotics. They go in the order that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now let’s extrapolate that to the self-driving car. Pretty simple at first glance: don’t cause accidents and avoid accidents that are happening around you, don’t take orders from stupid drivers if that means anyone’s likely to get killed or injured and try to keep up your resale value if you can. But here’s the conundrum – apparently the software being written for self-driving cars doesn’t factor in a concept of one life being more precious than another. What do I mean, you ask? Well, consider for a moment that you are driving a car and you find that you have to swerve to avoid crashing into a car, but by swerving you would hit a pedestrian. Your natural reaction would be to do that, since you are trying to save Primus Optimus (that’s you). Now, while you would have to face the courts and spend some agonising soul-searching moments, you would be happy that you are safe.

But the self-driving car decides otherwise. It is supposed to factor in all the odds and may decide that losing you is better than losing two pedestrians. Does that appeal to you as a responsible consumer? I am not suggesting for a moment that your microwave or television should kill you, but would you buy any durable that, were it to be allowed to think, decided that your life was just a footnote to the statistics?

Of course artificial intelligence is nowhere near the commercialisation stage. The car is only resorting to the programming put into it. It is just a fancier version of the automated cruise control systems that are already in place. In some ways it is a descendant of the logic that drives image control on your fancy new SLR cameras and your smart phone, albeit without these having a life-taking mode. You capture an image on full auto mode and the camera decides the f-stop, shutter speed, ISO settings and even the white balance. It looks for elements that it can recognise as faces and even knows when to release the shutter as the faces smile and open their eyes. You’ve no doubt seen the results. The images are never so great that you would want to send them out to be printed and never so bad that you wonder why you have bothered. The software will usually even compensate for your hand shaking as you capture your millionth inane photo.

The self-driving car is to my mind something like this. Only, by the time we see a lot of them on the road, they will also be networked, so that they are actually talking to each other. If I still hark back to your camera or phone, it would be like your phone asking your friend’s phone to quickly snap a shot and send it over because it knows that despite all the logic on-board you have never been able to take a decent shot.

The swarm of self-driving cars on the road will appeal to town planners and most commuters who think that getting from A to B should be about motion, not emotion. If they encountered a hot-blooded off-grid driver, what are the chances that they would gang up on him and swarm his Mustang to the layby? As for me, I believe that the self-driving car needs to be reimagined. The simple way would be to provide an override button that simply adds a constant to the algorithm. The owner’s life is supreme and the car should prioritise its business of crashing safely to ensure that the owner survives. Either that or like the theme pack that you install on your mobile device, allow every owner to give their car a personality, safe, quick or putative rally driver, every self-respecting runaround needs a character.

About Raj Warrior
Raj Warrior is the managing editor of Automan Magazine and has been a part of the Middle East’s automotive landscape from the past 15 years. He has run top rung car magazines in India and Oman and is often referred to as the Automan of Oman. With a background in mechanics, mechanisms and software programming, he is able to visualise the intricate workings of the modern automobile and brings a mix of technical and lifestyle based assessment to his writing. He is also an avid Photographer, often shooting the cars and motorcycles he tests for the magazine. As comfortable on a motorcycle as he is in cars, Raj is driven by his love affair with all things on wheels and brings his passion to all his automotive ventures. Raj has chosen Oman as his home base because he loves the country, its friendly people and its great driving and riding roads.

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