New Delhi: Autonomous vehicles (AVs) or driverless cars are vehicles that can operate without human intervention by using a combination of advanced technologies to navigate and make driving decisions. AVs hold out the promise of being safer than manually driven cars. Yet they cannot be 100% safe as collisions are sometimes unavoidable.
The recent progress in the development of autonomous cars has seen ethical questions come to the forefront. Governing bodies around the world are now facing a dilemma on whether to implement a mandatory ethics setting (MES) for the whole of society or, whether every driver should have the choice to select his own personal ethics setting (PES). The challenge lies in determining the ethical principles that should guide these decisions and programming them into the algorithms that control autonomous vehicles. As we move towards a future where self-driving cars will become common, it is essential that we engage in an honest discussion about the moral implications of this technology.
But before that let’s understand what constitutes a self-driving car: A car with a high level of automation that can collect data via sensors to understand its surroundings and make decisions while driving without compromising on safety is a self-driving car.
SAE International, a global standards development organization for mobility industry, has defined levels of automation for self-driven cars, ranging from Level 0 (no automation) to Level 5 (full automation). Most current self-driven cars are at Levels 2 and 3, which require some levels of human intervention, but the segment will mature sooner than later to include level 5 automation.
These cars are equipped with a variety of sensors that continuously collect data on nearby vehicles, pedestrians, road conditions and more, to build a comprehensive understanding of the environment.
AI algorithms process the data from sensors and make real-time decisions about acceleration, braking, steering, and navigation. These algorithms are trained using large datasets and can adapt to changing road conditions. AVs are designed with safety in mind, with backup systems for critical components. Additionally, they are programmed to follow traffic laws and prioritize safety over convenience.
Self-driving car ride
Self-driving car technology undergoes extensive testing, both in controlled environments and on public roads. Companies and researchers use simulation, closed-course testing, and real-world testing to refine the technologies and make it safer, yet today, we are not confident of relying completely on the decisions these cars make.
Accidents involving autonomous vehicles have raised questions about their safety and public acceptance. Can we trust AVs to make the right decision when faced with situations where they must take ethical decisions between prioritizing the safety of the vehicle occupants or pedestrians, in emergencies? AVs must communicate effectively with human drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians, to navigate traffic safety but we all know how difficult it is to train a machine to understand and respond to human behavior.
Also, AVs are vulnerable to hacking and cyber-attacks, which could compromise their safety and functionality. Automobile engineers are still struggling to develop the necessary sensors, software, and hardware to enable AVs to perceive and interpret their surroundings accurately in all conditions, including adverse weather and low-light situations. It is equally challenging to achieve high-definition mapping and localization accuracy.
The potential benefits
Self-driving cars offer a wide range of potential benefits, although it is important to note that some of these benefits may only be fully realized as the technology matures and becomes more widespread. They have the potential to significantly reduce accidents caused by human error, such as distracted driving, speeding and impaired driving. AVs can make split-second decisions, based on data from sensors, cameras, and other sources, potentially avoiding collisions.
As nations build more roads and citizens use more cars, we can expect traffic jams to get worse. Self-driving cars can communicate with each other to optimize traffic flow and reduce congestion. AVs can choose the most efficient routes, minimizing travel time, and fuel consumption.
Self-driving cars can be a boon for people who cannot drive due to age or disabilities, increasing their mobility and independence. They can optimize driving patterns and reduce fuel consumption, leading to lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Rules for AVs and safer roads
The expectations for an AV to meet road user safety, passenger safety and traffic rule compliance are not any different from the expectations the public has from cars driven by humans. It is only in exceptional circumstances, where one must decide who should die and who should live in a sudden or unavoidable car accident. Road users follow the social norm that prioritizes care for humans and respect for the traffic laws of the land. We need to develop engineering requirements and algorithms that meet the same social norms and expectations.
(Disclaimer: Ravi Kumar G. V. V., is Vice President and Head of Advanced Engineering Group, Engineering Services, Infosys. Views are personal)