Its predicted that 300 million electric cars will be on the road by 2040. Not only that, but a lot of these may be self-driving too. A few years ago this idea seemed implausible. But there again, so did mobile phones before that. But are autonomous electric cars they really something to celebrate? Maybe not.
It’s pretty clear an artificial intelligence revolution is under way. Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is testing fully autonomous vehicles. These will have no human at all behind the wheel on public roads in California.
We know that Uber can’t wait to make use of all the route data it has acquired. This would make drivers unnecessary with all their problematic demands for toilet breaks and paid holiday. The taxi firm Addison Lee declared that it will have self-driving cabs on the streets of London by 2021. The question is, what will this new world look like and should it worry us? Two questions spring to mind:
- Will there be more traffic? After all, cars will become comfortable mobile offices and entertainment spaces.
- Will there be less traffic? Automated vehicles can react to traffic conditions more efficiently?
And who will lose out? Not just drivers, but also driving instructors, traffic wardens and perhaps traffic cops.
Then there is the big issue of safety. Decisions being made by software engineers, about how cars behave on the road, will have life and death consequences in the future. For example, if your car was in an accident, would you prefer it to mow down an old man or a child? Kill half a dozen pedestrians or swerve into a wall, killing you?
If you’re driving, you make that split-second moral decision. In an era of self-driving cars, engineers will have to programme computers to do so. Psychologists have tried to get a sense of the public’s moral preferences in such cases. They achieved this by using an online survey in which 40 million people in 223 countries answered a version of the famous trolley problem. Would you divert a tram to kill one person, or leave it alone to kill four?
The results? It seems we tend to agree that cars should aim to save the largest number of lives. And these should prioritise the young and value humans over animals. In France and Latin America, there is a preference for saving women over men. And in some countries respondents wanted to save law-abiding pedestrians over jaywalkers.
The Moral Machine project also found evidence of some controversial preferences:
Overweight people were 20% more likely to be chosen to die than those of a healthy weight, and
Homeless people were 40% more likely to die than executives.
As the psychologists behind the project note, cars will only rarely have to make life or death decisions. But they will often have to decide how to distribute risk. For example, in lines of heavy traffic, should they edge closer to the bicycle on their left or the lorry on their right? If we programme millions of cars to get closer to bicycles, that will, over time, lead to more accidents for cyclists.
Powering electric cars
And finally a major geopolitical problem with electric cars are their cobalt batteries. The reason is that the Democratic Republic of Congo (DCR) is set to control 70% of the global supply. And this is one of the world’s grisliest regimes. The DRC uses child labour in its cobalt mines and is often accused of political torture. But such is the level of demand until we manage to develop cobalt-free batteries, it can do as it pleases.
At least Western bidders for cobalt, like Apple and Volkswagen, try to outlaw child labour. They make it a precondition for doing business. But China has no such qualms. It wins over corrupt African regimes by investing in their local infrastructure. Then it hoovers up the rare metal in question.
The final word on autonomous electric cars
In our greed for oil, we made moral compromises with the Axis of Diesel: Russia, Iran and Venezuela. In the era of clean transport, let us not do the same in our greed for cobalt. And let’s not forget that human drivers go through rigorous training, yet still kill more than a million people each year. Driverless cars will have to show they are safer. But there will still be accidents, and when there are, who will take the blame? I predict more work for lawyers in the new world; provided they too haven’t lost their jobs to algorithms by then.
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