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Can Autonomous Vehicles Absolve Human Responsibility?

In our rush to embrace the latest technology and take advantage of whatever benefits it offers—greater convenience, higher efficiency, improved reliability, lower cost, etc.—we must not neglect human safety.

Transportation has been a major driver of technological innovation (Figure 1) since the inventions of James Watt, the Wright Brothers and automotive pioneers Daimler and Maybach. Over the years, concerns for occupant safety have led to the development of seat belts and air bags in cars, while such things as improvements in vehicle body materials and profiles, and the deployment of reversing alarms on trucks and buses have reduced the risks of accident and injury to pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users.

Figure1A_web

Figure 1: Mankind’s need to get from one spot to another has inspired innovators from James Watt to Elon Musk [Left image: By James Eckford Lauder (1811 - 1869) (Scottish) Details of artist on Google Art Project [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Right image: [By jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons]

Figure 1: Mankind’s need to get from one spot to another has inspired innovators from James Watt to Elon Musk (Top image: By James Eckford Lauder (1811 - 1869) (Scottish) Details of artist on Google Art Project (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons; Bottom image: By jurvetson (Steve Jurvetson) - CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In more recent times, the technology of artificial intelligence (AI) has started to pervade the various electronic control systems that are an integral part of modern automotive design and today’s driving experience. However, as we move from advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) to fully autonomous self-driving vehicles we need to recognize the point at which responsibility for safe operation passes from human to machine. The ethics of the autonomous functionality offered by AI in vehicles has parallels with the “three laws of robotics” science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov postulated in 1942, which mostly aimed to protect humans from harm due to the actions of any robots. In similar fashion, implementing AI in vehicles needs ethical decision-making rules to define behavior that eliminates or reduces harm to humans.

From Fighter Pilots to Car Drivers

A fighter jet represents the pinnacle of aircraft evolution in terms of its performance and complexity of operation. Consequently, fighter pilots are assisted in flying them. A comprehensive suite of artificial intelligence algorithms can control almost every aspect of their operation, enhancing the pilot’s capability while still allowing him to take control when the situation demands it. In the same way, equally powerful, game-changing AI technology in automotive applications must account for the ability to return control of the vehicle to the driver.

Within the auto industry today, many electronic technology companies are focusing on the technical needs of ADAS, developing both adaptive and predictive systems and components that will allow for better and safer driving. ADAS assists the driver or any other agent in charge of the vehicle in a number of ways: It may warn the driver or take actions to reduce risk. It may also improve safety and performance by automating some portion of the control task of operating the vehicle.

In its current state ADAS mainly functions in cooperation with the driver, i.e. by providing a human-to-machine interface, which is part of the control system of the vehicle with the human still maintaining overall responsibility for the vehicle. Over time, it is expected that developments in technology will be successful in wielding ever-greater control of the vehicle, so assistance becomes the norm and driver intervention is reduced. ADAS are ultimately expected to develop further into the kind of autonomous system that will offer the ability to respond more quickly and with greater benefits than when a human agent is in control of the vehicle.

ADAS Demands Component Solutions

The development of electronic components for ADAS, and ultimately for truly autonomous vehicles, is being undertaken by leading component manufacturers worldwide. These companies are typically already experienced in meeting the demanding performance, quality and reliability standards expected by the automotive industry. For example, ON Semiconductor provides robust, AEC-qualified, production part approval process (PPAP) capable products for automotive applications, including the NCV78763 Power Ballast and Dual LED Driver for ADAS front headlights. Freescale Semiconductor is helping to drive the world’s most innovative ADAS solutions with its automotive, MCU, analog and sensors, and digital networking portfolio expertise. The development of its latest FXTH8715 Tire Pressure Monitoring Sensors (TPMS), which integrate an 8-bit microcontroller (MCU), pressure sensor, XZ-axis or Z-axis accelerometer and RF transmitter, was driven by a market requirement for improved safety. AVX, a technology leader in the manufacture of passive electronic components, developed the VCAS & VGAS Series TransGuard® Automotive Multi-Layer Varistors (MLVs) to provide protection against automotive-related transients in ADAS applications. Delphi Connection Systems supports challenging automotive applications that demand robust design and reliability with its high-performance APEX® Series Wire Connectors.

The Dream of Vehicle Autonomy

The electronics industry has long been characterized by continual improvements in performance that come at an ever-decreasing cost. This electronics industry has allowed technology that was once the preserve of racing cars and the luxury automobile market to percolate down through mid-range vehicles to everyday family vehicles. Many people, both inside and outside the industry, now dream of a future where completely autonomous vehicles will come to dominate the world’s roads. They visualize benefits in safety, travel efficiency, comfort, and convenience in vehicles that are programmed to avoid accidents, optimize journey times and costs and maximize the functional utility of the vehicle. Clearly, amongst these, preventing injury to passengers and others as well as damage to the vehicle and property is the highest priority.

Autonomous Vehicles Require Ethical Rules

Current laws regulating road use place the responsibility for safety squarely with the human driver. He or she must ensure that other people, both inside and outside the vehicle, are protected from harm arising from his/her operation of the vehicle. While a car may be viewed as a means of getting people from point A to point B as efficiently as possible, its use at excessive speed or in a dangerous manner resulting in an accident that injures or kills a pedestrian would likely be considered a criminal offense. Indeed, the deliberate use of a vehicle to run down and kill someone would, in most cases, constitute murder.

However, these judgments are rarely black or white, and there may be mitigating circumstances, depending on the situation and people involved. Moreover, while we would not expect an autonomous vehicle to exceed speed limits or undertake dangerous maneuvers in a typical situation, there may be occasions when, like a human operator, it needs to make decisions where the outcome may be questionable. These decisions are where we need to understand the ethics involved to apply appropriate rules. This can be appreciated by considering a few hypothetical scenarios:

1. When traveling at speed in traffic, a human driver might react to an animal jumping out into the road by swerving to avoid it and, in doing so, hitting another car. As the driver, you may have saved that animal but what if the result was an accident in which other people were hurt?

2. What if, instead of an animal in the above example, it was a pedestrian who had stepped into the road and hitting them was likely to be fatal. Then the action would have saved a human life at the cost of potential injuries to the occupants of the other vehicle.”

3. An autonomously driven vehicle confronted with the same situation of a pedestrian stepping into the road might decide it cannot run over that person but may also decide it cannot swerve into another vehicle. Instead, it swerves off the road hitting a wall resulting in serious injuries to the human ‘driver’ of the car and potentially any passengers too.

In the latter situation, the human ‘driver’ is not to blame, but equally, there is an ethical dilemma as to whether any fault lies with the autonomous vehicle. Undoubtedly, as we become more reliant on technologies such as ADAS and ultimately on Autonomous Technology Systems (ATS) the responsibility for operating a vehicle becomes less dependent on the individual driver and shifts to the vehicle itself and therefore to the car manufacturer. Not surprisingly, the automotive industry will not want to accept liability for such risks unless the market recognizes this requirement and establishes an appropriate business model that makes economic sense for the manufacturers and doesn’t result in endless litigation.

Conclusion

Technological solutions are now starting to outpace the real-world situations into which they are being introduced. The deployment of artificial intelligence is challenging the status quo and forcing us to consider ethical questions about how machines should operate and who has control and is, therefore, responsible for their behavior.

This moral issue is certainly true of autonomous vehicles where ceding control to the vehicle requires AI that follows agreed ethical rules to protect human life. If we are to benefit from improved transportation systems with greater freedom, flexibility, efficiency, and safety, then it is society as a whole rather than design engineers and vehicle manufacturers that have to face up to this challenge and take on this responsibility.


Photo-RudyRamos_webRudy Ramos is the Project Manager for the Technical Content Marketing team at Mouser Electronics, accountable for the timely delivery of the Application and Technology sites from concept to completion. He has 30 years of experience working with electromechanical systems, manufacturing processes, military hardware, and managing domestic and international technical projects. He holds an MBA from Keller Graduate School of Management with a concentration in Project Management. Prior to Mouser, he worked for National Semiconductor and Texas Instruments. Ramos may be reached at rudy.ramos@mouser.com

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