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.


What it's been like living in one of the few places that never locked down

People enjoy sunny weather in Tantolunden park in Stockholm on May 30, 2020, amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. (Henrik Montgomery/TT News Agency/AFP via Getty Images)

While most of the Western world was confined to their homes for the better part of two months this spring, my friends and I in Stockholm continued hanging out. In stark contrast to most other places, we went to restaurants (occasionally, outside when possible), to one another’s houses (in our yards when possible), and even sent our kids to school. As the rest of the world opens up again, not much will change in Stockholm.

As an American expat living in the Swedish capital, I was initially angry at Sweden’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In my home country, early outbreaks in locations such as Seattle, New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area led to strict rules that were soon mirrored in many other states and cities. The Swedish strategy, meanwhile, boiled down mostly to recommendations: If possible, work from home; avoid unnecessary travel within the country; engage in social distancing; and if you’re above 70, stay home. I felt that, in the face of a global pandemic, a country known for its generous welfare policies – that took such good care of its citizens – wasn’t doing its part to protect us.

My friends and I are mostly expats with young families who, early on, pulled our children out of school against official policy. (Schools here only closed for those 16 and over.) We eagerly waited to hear what further action our current country would take. Surely a country known for its progressive social policies would take fast, decisive action to protect its citizens?

The regulations that were put into place in Sweden amounted to restricting public gatherings to no more than 50 people (reduced from 500, which concert halls skirted by restricting entry to 499), limiting restaurants to table service only, and no visiting retirement homes. People here did take the work-from-home guidelines to heart – no one I knew was going in to work. But bars and restaurants were full. My Instagram feed was a highlight reel of acquaintances clinking champagne flutes at the city’s major clubs and restaurants.

After the first few weeks, I slowly started meeting up with friends again. I sent my kids back to school, where they intentionally spent most of the day outdoors and drop-offs were restricted to outside only (parents weren’t allowed to enter the building). I was careful to take precautions like bringing hand sanitizer to playgrounds and wiping my hands after opening and closing the gate to school. Hardly anyone wore masks to the grocery shop or inside stores – the few times I’ve seen people wearing them I’ve done a double take. One busy Friday night in late April at the local supermarket there was a line out the door and someone regulating the number of customers allowed inside at the same time. I took a photo and sent it to my family in the US saying “Sweden finally catching up with the rest of the world!” (I haven’t seen entry to that store being regulated since.)

When I spoke to Swedish friends about the strategy many agreed with the relaxed approach, mentioning that other countries’ draconian measures would be unnecessary in Sweden. A recent poll showed that just 11% of people in Sweden felt they did not trust state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell, who is leading the strategy. In this country, the onus was placed on citizens themselves to follow recommendations. It's about personal judgement and individual responsibility within a framework that rested on mutual trust, rather than top-down control. Swedes’ high level of interpersonal trust and trust in authority was often cited in the press as the characteristic enabling the relaxed Swedish strategy in tackling the virus, as opposed to social distancing becoming a matter of surveillance and policing like in Spain or Italy, where any nonessential socializing was forbidden.

In early May, Sweden's ambassador to the US Karin Ulrika Olofsdotter said in an interview with the Washington Post that some media outlets made it look “like everyone in Sweden is out drinking and partying,” she said. “That is not the case.” But that was certainly how it felt to me. According to research by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser in 2016, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and Finland, more than 60% of respondents in the World Value Survey think that people can be trusted. And in the other extreme, in countries such as Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador and Peru, less than 10% think that this is the case.

Of course, many places in the US also took a similarly relaxed approach to tackling the pandemic, with conservative lawmakers and anti-lockdown activists citing Sweden as taking the right approach. Sweden, rarely finding cheerleaders among conservative US circles, suddenly stood as an example to follow. But since then, places such as Arizona, Texas and Florida have all seen significant spikes in cases following reopenings and are being deemed the new epicentres of the virus – while Sweden’s numbers have stabilised. According to some reports, the death toll in Sweden is one of the highest in the world per capita, but the total number of Swedish deaths remains at just above 5,000, compared to over 120,000 in the US, over 43,000 in the UK, over 28,000 in Spain and over 34,000 in Italy. The mortality rate in Sweden and the number of new intensive care cases in the country declined in the last week and contagion rates here are now “stable” according to the WHO.

Although it didn’t always feel like it at the time, Sweden issued clear guidance from the beginning, with the expectation that people would choose to follow it. It certainly was my experience that everyone I knew stopped going into the office and started working from home. William Hanage, an associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s School of Public Health, attributed Sweden’s slowing of the virus to implementing guidance early on. “Sweden’s policy is unusual in that it took a much less stringent approach to preventing transmission," he says, "but interestingly it implemented those measures at a very early stage in the pandemic, before large amounts of community spread had occurred.”

Now I go outside and all too often realise I’ve left my hand sanitiser at home. I even met a friend for lunch outdoors at a busy cafe one particularly sunny day, and another indoors one Friday night for dinner. In May I had a birthday bash in my garden with a dozen or so friends and we ended up at the local bar. I always felt guilty after, as if I’d done something wrong that I couldn’t tell my family in Baltimore about. When I watched international news or spoke to family back home I would feel a certain cognitive dissonance between my own seemingly low-risk reality and what I knew to be happening in the rest of the world. My family in the US calls me skeptically questioning why I’ve had people over in my garden, or been out to eat. I can’t explain the lack of logic that permits an entire city’s citizens to operate life as normal in the midst of a global pandemic. But Stockholm has become a bubble of exactly this.

Being relatively young and healthy, I’m not so worried about getting sick. Even though young and healthy people have gotten seriously ill, there haven’t been any reported cases at my kids’ or any of my friends’ kids’ schools. Nobody I know in Stockholm knows has gotten sick, allowing me to feel a certain distance from it. But my husband’s parents are in their mid-70s and weren’t able to see their grandchildren for two months save for a few visits to their hallway, where we wave and blow kisses to them standing at the door.

I’ve been grateful – but also felt a sense of guilt for – my freedom here. When there are no hard and fast rules about how to act, it’s easy to constantly question yourself: Is it really okay to be outside, sitting at this full cafe? Is it okay to invite a few friends over for a birthday? Is it okay to send my kids to school? These questions have surely gone through minds around the world in the past several weeks, and now it’s clear that that behaviour had dire consequences in some cities and not others.

While Swedish social media at times suggests an endless friend-filled party at summer homes and popular hangouts, the reality here is a balancing act between personal judgement and the freedom to continue life as normal. Self-regulation is what it comes down to in Sweden, anyway.

Elysha Krupp is a writer and editor currently living in Stockholm.