Already Outside: Your Uber Self-Driving Car will be Arriving Shortly


This blog has discussed the benefits and drawbacks of hybrid and electric vehicles, but self-driving cars may be the biggest auto tech we have yet to cover. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine this is even real.

Well, we can all pinch ourselves. It is real—maybe a little too real—and it feels like completely different territory than anything we’ve seen thus far from the auto industry. With industry giants like Apple, Google and Uber paving the way for self-driving car tech, we can rest assured that the technological competition is going to be fierce.

A looming question is now dominating the Internet as we consider how quickly this technology is arriving, and it’s straight from the Philosophy 101 textbook: what are the ethical consequences of putting millions of non-human entities on the roads, computing life-and-death decisions in less than a microsecond? And what about jobs? Are the machines taking over?

Sketch of the revolutionary McCormick reaper at work

Historically speaking, there have always been game-changing moments in technological development. The McCormick reaper of the mid-19th century changed farming practices that had been around since the dawn of agriculture itself and created a near exponential population growth in that time; nothing like it had ever been seen. The iPhone freed us from the work desk in ways that are still being discovered. And now, self-driving cars will alter how we live, commute, spend recreational time, etc. They may also threaten jobs. So, what can expect the future of self-driving cars to look like?

Philosophy, Ethics and Self-Driving Cars
This headline reads like a college undergrad Philosophy course. (Class of 2027, anyone?) If you’ve read the classic science-fiction novel I, Robot or seen the adapted movie, you know that author Isaac Asimov’s first rule of robotics is that robots may not hurt humans or allow humans to be hurt by outside means. Oh, how things have changed! The issue of “car ethics” has been raised by a recent study, published in Science but here cited from a CNN article, which contends that self-driving cars are arriving soon and bringing with them ethical issues that are pretty scary to comprehend.

Author Isaac Asimov's Three Rules of Robotics
Author Isaac Asimov’s Three Rules of Robotics

For instance, if you were driving in the pouring rain and suddenly saw a crowd of people right in front of you, you might determine that your options were to swerve off the road and risk only your own life or brake and risk the lives of others. Before you roll your eyes, we know what you’re thinking: 1) “I wouldn’t have been driving in the first place in those conditions.” Fair enough. 2) “Is this really one of those what-would-you-do things? What are we, 12 years old?” Good points all around. But should it happen, you only have seconds—or less—to make a decision. The dilemma is very real when it comes to self-driving cars, and it was raised by Jean-Francois Bonnefon, co-author on the recent study. He claims that a self-driving car must make these ethical decisions by using math. So, what should come first, the passenger or the world?

Eeny, meeny, miny...
Eeny, meeny, miny…

Furthermore, this might as well be a study in how people give contradictory responses when you ask them variations of the same basic question. According to the study, 76% of people surveyed said it is “more moral for a driverless vehicle to sacrifice one passenger rather than 10 pedestrians,” while “81%… said they would rather own a car that protected [the passenger]… at all costs.” In other words, people believe that society is more important than the individual, as long as that individual isn’t them. Jonathan Handel, adjunct professor at the University of Southern California’s Gould School of Law, refers to this as the “not in my backyard” problem (or “back seat problem”). People are less likely to concern themselves with outcomes that do not affect them personally.

Much of this discussion stems from what is known as the “Trolley Problem,” which refers to a situation where the conductor of a train sees a family of five that will surely die if the train’s route is not altered, but if a lever is pulled, the train will veer off and kill one lone man who is completely unaware of the train. The conductor must make the choice. The Trolley Problem asks us to determine which scenario is worse: the one where we do nothing and can’t be held responsible for five deaths, or the one where we choose to take action but save more lives in doing so.

Of course, it’s not just the Trolley Problem that’s at play here. Sometimes animals fly or run out in front of us, and we have to decide whether or not to brake. What will self-driving cars do about ducks in the road? Squirrels and birds? Deer? As humans, we calculate these risks and make decisions quickly, sometimes in less than a second. It’s reasonable, isn’t it, to ask that companies like Google and Uber reveal their risk-calculating software to the public? We think so.

If you’re playing devil’s advocate, you may scoff at the idea that this ethical concept has landed front-and-center in the self-driving car discussion. After all, should the mathematical “ethics” of self-driving cars concern us deeply if these sorts of occurrences are few and far between? Many thousands are already injured or killed annually from traffic collisions due to human errors. It’s hard to imagine technology mucking things up worse than we already have, in terms of safety. (Here’s hoping I don’t have to eat my words.) So how important is this issue of non-human ethics? Survey says…

Are Self-Driving Cars Job Killers or Job Savers?
No discussion on auto technology is complete without considering the economic impact of the change. We’ve discussed here how mechanics need to continually update their maintenance and repairs to keep ahead of the curve (i.e. electric cars, digital dash displays). If self-driving cars hit the market by way of millions of units, it stands to reason that fewer drivers in front seats means fewer jobs for commercial drivers. Or does it?

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

If you ask Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, Uber’s track record of creating jobs (made possible by the advent of mobile phone apps) and adapting to new technological circumstances is proof that self-driving cars will afford workers new opportunities for employment. By comparing the upcoming change to phone operators who all lost their jobs once phone switchboards were no longer a thing, he seems be admitting that the role of drivers is going to change, even disappear. Without supplying a timeline, Kalanick says that self-driving cars are still a long ways away. Uber is still figuring out simple things like bridge-crossing, so yeah, it sounds like there’s time.

Google self-driving car prototype
Google self-driving car prototype

It’s interesting how aware Kalanick is of his company’s problem: if he’s not “tied for first” at the end of this race for the perfect self-driving car, he knows Uber is finished as a company. It’s not easy to take away the drivers who make Uber possible and change up an entire business model. Google, in light of its own self-driving car endeavors, earlier this year announced dozens of manufacturing positions. One engineering position included this in its job description: “approving fixture designs used in the assembly of electronic modules for the self-driving car.” Tantalizing! How roles like these, as well as more numerous low and mid-level labor jobs, will expand remains to be seen. Unlike Uber, which already has millions of drivers in its global network, Google is just entering into the driving marketplace, so they don’t have to worry about losing a labor force (drivers) who will eventually be replaced by self-driving car tech. This might make the change more difficult for Uber.

In the long run, it’s hard to say how jobs will be affected. For one, there are no clear timelines here, so it’s difficult to think about long-term planning. If you’re an Uber driver, maybe there is some reason to be concerned for your job. Is this enough to make you want to get up and quit before you’re let go? Second, who knows how many jobs will really be created. It’s easy to see manufacturing positions that were once held by humans be replaced by machines. In fact, that’s nothing new in today’s manufacturing era. This is sure to be a major discussion in the years to come.

In either case, if you live in Pittsburgh, let us know how those free self-driving car rides feel. As it turns out, the weird, wild future of self-driving cars is pulling up shortly.

Uber self-driving car, developed by Volvo
Uber self-driving car, developed by Volvo

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