Once driverless cars are on the road, human drivers should be banned

A self-driving car in Detroit, July 2019. Image: Getty.

Self-driving cars could revolutionise people’s lives. By the end of the next decade, or perhaps even sooner, they could radically transform public spaces and liberate us from the many problems of mass car ownership. They’ll also be much better behaved than human drivers.

Robot drivers won’t break the speed limit, jump the lights, or park where they shouldn’t. They won’t drive under the influence of drink or drugs. They’ll never get tired or behave aggressively. They won’t be distracted by changing the music or sending a text, and they’ll never be trying to impress their mates.

Driverless cars could also change the face of public spaces. Private cars are very expensive items that do absolutely nothing 95 per cent of the time. They are economically viable only because paying a taxi driver for all your car journeys would be even more expensive. Once cars don’t need human drivers, this cost balance should tip the other way.

Imagine what your town or city could look like with driverless taxis instead of private cars. Most of the space taken up by car parks could be used for homes, offices, cafes, bars, cinemas, hotels, and swimming pools. An end to parked cars lining every street like urban cholesterol. Quicker bus journeys. Wider pavements.

With more space and safer roads, active transport would be more attractive. More people would travel around on bikes, skateboards, roller blades, and scooters. Driverless taxis could easily be electric, returning to depots to recharge.

The benefits to public health would be enormous. Our towns and cities would be vastly more pleasant places to live and breathe. Transport’s contribution to climate change would be dramatically reduced. But ensuring all these benefits presents an important ethical challenge.

Dealing with emergencies

Ethical concern about autonomous vehicles has so far focused on emergencies. Should a car save its passengers at the cost of killing or injuring other people? Should it swerve to avoid someone in the road if this means hitting someone on the pavement? How many people need to be saved to outweigh a bystander’s life or limb? Are children more important than adults? And so on.

The problem resembles philosopher Philippa Foot’s most famous ethical thought experiment: the trolley problem. Imagine you are driving a trolleybus. Its brakes have failed and it’s hurtling towards five people who will certainly be killed if it hits them. You can swerve it onto a side track, killing one person who otherwise would not have been affected. The question is, whether you should.

Would you hit the switch? Image: McGeddon/Wikimedia Commons.

Philosophers debating this question have produced a dazzling array of variations. What if you are standing by the track next to someone wearing a very large backpack? Should you push that tourist under the trolley, saving five people’s lives? If you could stop the trolley only at the cost of your own life, should you do that? And so on and so on.

Intuitive responses to these variations tend to seem contradictory. But we learn more about our moral thinking by exploring how they might in fact be consistent. And we learn more about moral cognition by scanning people’s brains while they consider these problems.

Self-driving cars have given this debate a new purpose. We have to teach these vehicles how to handle emergencies – the trolley problem just got real. At least, this is what many philosophers think. But in focusing on an existing thought experiment, they have missed the bigger picture.

The real ethical challenge

Engineers working on driverless cars tell us that the safest response in any emergency is to stop. This will be even safer if the nearby cars all have robot drivers. And robot drivers would be better behaved than human ones, reducing the number of emergencies on the roads.

Given all the potential benefits to public health and quality of life, we should be much better off once robots take over the driving, whatever the authorities decide about emergency situations.

This is what gives rise to the real ethical challenge of self-driving cars. Once robot drivers are safe enough to allow onto the roads in large numbers, it seems that we should maximise their benefits by banning their dangerous human counterparts from public roads.

There would be resistance to this, of course. Many people enjoy driving. But many people enjoy smoking, too, and this is banned in public places for the protection of non-smokers. There could be designated safe spaces for drivers to indulge their hobby without risk to other people.

Rights of access pose a more difficult question. There is a strong case that essential transport infrastructure should be publicly owned. And if private cars are not an option, perhaps the cost of using autonomous taxis should be proportionate to ability to pay.

But regardless of how we resolve these practical issues, it seems that the enormous benefits of safe, driverless taxis should lead us to remove any other kind of car from our roads.

The Conversation

Jonathan Webber, Professor of Philosophy, Cardiff University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Transport for London’s fare zones secretly go up to 15

Some of these stations are in zones 10 to 12. Ooooh. Image: TfL.

The British capital, as every true-blooded Londoner knows, is divided into six concentric zones, from zone 1 in the centre to zone 6 in the green belt-hugging outer suburbs.

These are officially fare zones, which Transport for London (TfL) uses to determine the cost of your tube or rail journey. Unofficially, though, they’ve sort of become more than that, and like postcodes double as a sort of status symbol, a marker of how London-y a district actually is.

If you’re the sort of Londoner who’s also interested in transport nerdery, or who has spent any time studying the tube map, you’ll probably know that there are three more zones on the fringes of the capital. These, numbered 7 to 9, are used to set and collect fares at non-London stations where the Oyster card still works. But they differ from the first six, in that they aren’t concentric rings, but random patches, reflecting not distance from London but pre-existing and faintly arbitrary fares. Thus it is that at some points (on the Overground to Cheshunt, say) trains leaving zone 6 will visit zone 7. But at others they jump to 8 (on the train to Dartford) or 9 (on TfL rail to Brentwood), or skip them altogether.

Anyway: it turns out that, although they’re keeping it fairly quiet, the zones don’t stop at 9 either. They go all the way up to 15.

So I learned this week from the hero who runs the South East Rail Group Twitter feed, when they (well, let’s be honest: he) tweeted me this:

The choice of numbers is quite odd in its way. Purfleet, a small Thames-side village in Essex, is not only barely a mile from the London border, it’s actually inside the M25. Yet it’s all the way out in the notional zone 10. What gives?

TfL’s Ticketing + Revenue Update is a surprisingly jazzy internal newsletter about, well, you can probably guess. The September/October 2018 edition, published on WhatDoTheyKnow.com following a freedom of information request, contains a helpful explanation of what’s going on. The expansion of the Oyster card system

“has seen [Pay As You Go fare] acceptance extended to Grays, Hertford East, Shenfield, Dartford and Swanley. These expansions have been identified by additional zones mainly for PAYG caping and charging purposes.

“Although these additional zones appear on our staff PAYG map, they are no generally advertised to customers, as there is the risk of potentially confusing users or leading them to think that these ones function in exactly the same way as Zones 1-6.”

Fair enough: maps should make life less, not more, confusing, so labelling Shenfield et al. as “special fares apply” rather than zone whatever makes some sense. But why don’t these outer zone fares work the same way as the proper London ones?

“One of the reasons that the fare structure becomes much more complicated when you travel to stations beyond the Zone 6 boundary is that the various Train Operating Companies (TOCs) are responsible for setting the fares to and from their stations outside London. This means that they do not have to follow the standard TfL zonal fares and can mean that stations that are notionally indicated as being in the same fare zone for capping purposes may actually have very different charges for journeys to/from London."

In other words, these fares have been designed to fit in with pre-existing TOC charges. Greater Anglia would get a bit miffed if TfL unilaterally decided that Shenfield was zone 8, thus costing the TOC a whole pile of revenue. So it gets a higher, largely notional fare zone to reflect fares. It’s a mess. No wonder TfL doesn't tell us about them.

These “ghost zones”, as the South East Rail Group terms them, will actually be extending yet further. Zone 15 is reserved for some of the western-most Elizabeth line stations out to Reading, when that finally joins the system. Although whether the residents of zone 12 will one day follow in the venerable London tradition of looking down on the residents of zones 13-15 remains to be seen.

Jonn Elledge was the founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.