Could self-driving cars make crossings or traffic lights redundant?

Decisions made by engineers today will determine how all cars drive. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

A lot of discussion and ethical thought about self-driving cars have focused on tragic dilemmas, like hypotheticals in which a car has to decide whether to run over a group of schoolchildren or plunge off a cliff, killing its own occupants. But those sorts of situations are extreme cases.

As the most recent crash – in which a self-driving car killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona – demonstrates, the mundane, everyday situations at every crosswalk, turn and intersection present much harder and broader ethical quandaries.

Ethics of extremes

As a philosopher working with engineers in Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research, I was initially surprised that we spent our lab meetings discussing what I thought was an easy question: How should a self-driving car approach a crosswalk?

My assumption had been that we would think about how a car should decide between the lives of its passengers and the lives of pedestrians. I knew how to think about such dilemmas because these crash scenarios resemble a famous philosophical brainteaser called the “trolley problem”. Imagine a runaway trolley is hurling down the tracks and is bound to hit either a group of five or a single person – would you kill one to save five?

However, many philosophers nowadays doubt that investigating such questions is a fruitful avenue of research. Barbara Fried, a colleague at Stanford, for example, has argued that tragic dilemmas make people believe ethical quandaries mostly arise in extreme and dire circumstances.

In fact, ethical quandaries are ubiquitous. Everyday, mundane situations are surprisingly messy and complex, often in subtle ways. For example: Should your city spend money on a diabetes prevention program or on more social workers? Should your local Department of Public Health hire another inspector for restaurant hygiene standards, or continue a program providing free needles and injection supplies?

These questions are extremely difficult to answer because of uncertainties about the consequences – such as who will be affected and to what degree. The solutions philosophers have proposed for extreme and desperate situations are of little help here.

The problem is similar with self-driving cars. Thinking through extreme situations and crash scenarios cannot help answer questions that arise in mundane situations.

A challenge at crosswalks

One could ask, what can be so hard about mundane traffic situations like approaching a crosswalk, driving through an intersection, or making a left turn? Even if visibility at the crosswalk is limited and it is sometimes hard to tell whether a nearby pedestrian actually wants to cross the street, drivers cope with this every day.

But for self-driving cars, such mundane situations pose a challenge in two ways.

First, there is the fact that what is easy for humans is often hard for machines. Whether it is recognising faces or riding bicycles, we are good at perception and mechanical tasks because evolution built these skills for us. That, however, makes these skills hard to teach or engineer. This is known as “Moravec’s Paradox.”

Second, in a future where all cars are self-driving cars, small changes to driving behavior would make a big difference in the aggregate. Decisions made by engineers today, in other words, will determine not how one car drives but how all cars drive. Algorithms become policy.

Engineers teach computers how to recognise faces and objects using methods of machine learning. They can use machine learning also to help self-driving cars imitate how humans drive. But this isn’t a solution: It doesn’t solve the problem that wide-ranging decisions about safety and mobility are made by engineers.

Furthermore, self-driving cars shouldn’t drive like people. Humans aren’t actually very good drivers. And they drive in ethically troubling ways, deciding whether to yield at crosswalks, based on pedestrians’ age, race and income. For example, researchers in Portland have found that black pedestrians are passed by twice as many cars and had to wait a third longer than white pedestrians before they can cross.

Self-driving cars should drive more safely, and more fairly than people do.


Mundane ethics

The ethical problems deepen when you attend to the conflicts of interest that surface in mundane situations such as crosswalks, turns and intersections.

For example, the design of self-driving cars needs to balance the safety of others – pedestrians or cyclists – with the interests of cars’ passengers. As soon as a car goes faster than walking pace, it is unable to prevent from crashing into a child that might run onto the road in the last second. But walking pace is, of course, way too slow. Everyone needs to get to places. So how should engineers strike the balance between safety and mobility? And what speed is safe enough?

There are other ethical questions that come up as well. Engineers need to make trade-offs between mobility and environmental impacts. When they’re applied across all the cars in the country, small changes in computer-controlled acceleration, cornering and braking can have huge effects on energy use and pollution emissions. How should engineers trade off travel efficiency with environmental impact?

What should the future of traffic be?

Mundane situations pose novel engineering and ethical problems, but they also lead people to question basic assumptions of the traffic system.

For myself, I began to question whether we need places called “crosswalks” at all? After all, self-driving cars can potentially make it safe to cross a road anywhere.

And it is not only crosswalks that become unnecessary. Traffic lights at intersections could be a thing of the past as well. Humans need traffic lights to make sure everyone gets to cross the intersection without crash and chaos. But self-driving cars could coordinate among themselves smoothly.

Traffic control for the future.

The bigger question here is this: given that self-driving cars are better than human drivers, why should the cars be subject to rules that were designed for human fallibility and human errors? And to extend this thought experiment, consider also the more general question: if we, as a society, could design our traffic system from scratch, what would we want it to look like?

Because these hard questions concern everyone in a city or in a society, they require a city or society to agree on answers. That means balancing competing interests in a way that works for everybody – whether people think only about crosswalks or about the traffic system as a whole.

With self-driving cars, societies can redesign their traffic systems. From the crosswalk to overall traffic design – it is mundane situations that raise really hard questions. Extreme situations are a distraction.

The ConversationThe trolley problem does not answer these hard questions.

Johannes Himmelreich, Interdisciplinary Ethics Fellow, Stanford University McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“You don’t look like a train buff”: on sexism in the trainspotting community

A female guard on London’s former Metropolitan Railway. Image: Getty.

I am a railway enthusiast. I like looking at trains, I like travelling by train and I like the quirks of the vast number of different train units, transit maps and train operating companies.

I get goosebumps standing on a platform watching my train approach, eyeballing the names of the destinations on the dot matrix display over and over again, straining to hear the tinny departure announcements on the tannoy.  I’m fortunate enough to work on the site of a former railway station that not only houses beautiful old goods sheds, but still has an active railway line running alongside it. You can imagine my colleagues’ elation as I exclaim: “Wow! Look at that one!” for the sixth time that day, as another brilliantly gaudy freight train trundles past.

I am also a woman in my twenties. A few weeks my request to join a railway-related Facebook group was declined because I – and I quote here – “don’t look like a train buff”.

After posting about this exchange on Twitter, my outrage was widely shared. “They should be thrilled to have you!” said one. “What does a train buff look like?!” many others asked.

The answer, of course, is a middle-aged white man with an anorak and notebook. Supposedly, anyway. That’s the ancient stereotype of a “trainspotter”, which sadly shows no sign of waning.

I’m not alone in feeling marginalised in the railway community. Sarah, a railway enthusiast from Bournemouth, says she is used to funny looks when she tells people that she is not only into trains, but an engineer.

She speaks of her annoyance at seeing a poster bearing the phrase: “Beware Rail Enthusiasts Disease: Highly Infectious To Males Of All Ages”. “That did bug me,” she says, “because women can enjoy trains just as much as men.”


Vicki Pipe is best known as being one half of the YouTube sensation All The Stations, which saw her and her partner Geoff Marshall spend 2017 visiting every railway station in Great Britain.

“During our 2017 adventure I was often asked ‘How did your boyfriend persuade you to come along?’” she says. “I think some found it unusual that a woman might be independently interested or excited enough about the railways to spend sixteen weeks travelling to every station on the network.”

Pipe, who earlier this year travelled to all the stations in Ireland and Northern Ireland, is passionate about changing the way in which people think of the railways, including the perception of women in the industry.

“For me it’s the people that make the railways such an exciting place to explore – and many of these are women,” she explains. “Women have historically and continue to play an important part in the railway industry – throughout our journey we met female train drivers, conductors, station staff, signallers and engineers. I feel it is important that more female voices are heard so that women of the future recognise the railways as a place they too can be part of.”

Despite the progress being made, it’s clear there is still a long way to go in challenging stereotypes and proving that girls can like trains, too.

I’m appalled that in 2019 our life choices are still subjected to critique. This is why I want to encourage women to embrace their interests and aspirations – however “nerdy”, or unusual, or untraditionally “female” they may be – and to speak up for things that I was worried to speak about for so long.

We might not change the world by doing so but, one by one, we’ll let others know that we’ll do what we want – because we can.