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Self-Driving Cars Are Amoral

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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Self-driving cars are the subject of more hype than even true artificial intelligence, perhaps because they already exist and a number of big companies are committed to making them a marketable reality. So it's worth listening when a top executive of one of these companies says self-driving vehicles are a long way off.

"The technology will be held back by the ultimate moral question on who's responsible," said Ian Robertson, head of sales for Bayerische Motoren Werke in Munich. 

Figuring this out isn't as easy as simply changing insurance rules. Imagine you're driving along a narrow mountain road at high speed, and a child jumps in front of your car. If you swerve to avoid hitting him, you'll crash into a cliff or plunge into an abyss. In both cases, it means certain death for you.

Now imagine the car is driving itself.

"An algorithm will make a decision which might not be acceptable from a cultural or societal point of view," Robertson explained.

BMW is as advanced as anyone when it comes to automated driving: It manufactures an electric car you can send away to look for a parking spot and then summon via your smartwatch to pick you up. (It needs a map of the garage, but even Google doesn't have a solution to that problem, either).  The moral issue remains as pressing today as when Isaac Asimov formulated his famous Three Laws of Robotics

In the 1953 short story "Sally," Asiimov imagined self-driving cars run by "positronic brains." His concept would be familiar to self-driving car enthusiasts of today, such as Google's Larry Page or Tesla's  Elon Musk. Here's how Asimov put it:  

I can remember when there wasn't an automobile in the world with brains enough to find its own way home. I chauffeured dead lumps of machines that needed a man's hand at their controls every minute. Every year machines like that used to kill tens of thousands of people. The automatics fixed that. A positronic brain can react much faster than a human one, of course, and it paid people to keep hands off the controls. You got in, punched your destination and let it go its own way. We take it for granted now, but I remember when the first laws came out forcing the old machines off the highways and limiting travel to automatics. Lord, what a fuss. They called it everything from communism to fascism, but it emptied the highways and stopped the killing, and still more people get around more easily the new way. Of course, the automatics were ten to a hundred times as expensive as the hand-driven ones, and there weren't many that could afford a private vehicle. The industry specialized in turning out omnibus-automatics. You could always call a company and have one stop at your door in a matter of minutes and take you where you wanted to go. Usually, you had to drive with others who were going your way, but what's wrong with that?

The plot of the story, however, is to illustrate that things can go wrong. An autonomous vehicle ends up killing an unscrupulous businessman who wanted to harm other such machines. It makes a moral decision, and that worries the story's protagonist, who runs a robotic car farm. "I don't get as much pleasure out of my cars as I used to," he says.

The only way to resolve the moral dilemma is for the human inside the car to have full responsibility. In legal terms, this means having the driver behind the wheel all the time, able to take over at any moment. 

Until recently, the Vienna Convention on road traffic, which went into effect in 1977, banned autonomous vehicles, saying that "every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle." Last year, the UN working group responsible for keeping the convention up to date accepted an amendment saying assisted driving is acceptable if "such systems can be overridden or switched off by the driver." German, French and Italian automakers pushed through this change, because it lets them keep up with Silicon Valley competition in developing self-driving car technology.

It means, however, that even though drivers will be able to cruise on autopilot, they will still have to keep watching the road, ready to take over if necessary. This is not an insurmountable hurdle for assisted driving technology, which is still going to be useful and highly lucrative. It's just a reason to take off the rose-colored glasses and recognize that, even when the technology becomes widely available, we may never move to the back seat or sleep peacefully when alone in a moving car.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net