A Philosopher's Blog

Autonomous Vehicles: Solving an Unnecessary Problem?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on February 15, 2017
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While motor vehicle fatalities do not get the attention of terrorist attacks (unless a celebrity is involved), the roads of the United States are no stranger to blood.  From 2000 to 2015, the motor vehicle deaths per year ranged from a high of 43,005 in 2005 to a low of 32,675 in 2014. In 2015 there were 35,092 motor vehicle deaths and last year the number went back up to around 40,000. Given the high death toll, there is clearly a problem that needs to be solved.

One of the main reasons being advanced for the deployment of autonomous vehicles is that they will make the roads safer and thus reduce the carnage. While predictions of the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles are overly optimistic, the idea that they would reduce motor vehicle deaths is certainly plausible. After all, autonomous vehicles will not be subject to road rage, exhaustion, intoxication, poor judgment, distraction and the other maladies that inflict human drivers and contribute to the high death tolls. Motor vehicle deaths will certainly not be eliminated even if all vehicles were autonomous, but the likely reduction in the death toll does present a very strong moral and practical reason to deploy such vehicles. That said, it is still worth considering whether the autonomous vehicle is aimed at solving an unnecessary problem. Considering this matter requires going back in time, to the rise of the automobile in the United States.

As the number of cars increased in the United States, so did the number of deaths. One contributing factor to the high number of deaths was that American cars were rather unsafe and this led Ralph Nader to write his classic work, Unsafe at Any Speed. Thanks to Nader and others, the American automobile became much safer and motor vehicle fatalities decreased. While making cars safer was certainly a good thing, it can be argued that this approach was fundamentally flawed. I will use an analogy to make my point.

Imagine, if you will, that people insist on swinging hammers around as they go about their day.  As would be suspected, the hammer swinging would often result in injuries and property damage. Confronted by these harms, solutions are proposed and implemented. People wear ever better helmets and body armor to protect them from wild swings. Hammers are also continuously redesigned so that they inflict less damage when hitting, for example, a face.  Eventually Google and other companies start work on autonomous swinging hammers that will be much better than humans at avoiding hitting other people and things. While all these safety improvements would be better than the original situation of unprotected people swinging very dangerous hammers around, this approach seems to be fundamentally flawed. After all, if people stopped swinging hammers around, then the problem would be solved.

An easy and obvious reply to my analogy is that using motor vehicles, unlike random hammer swinging, is rather important. For one thing, a significant percentage of the economy is built around the motor vehicle. This includes the obvious things like vehicle sales, vehicle maintenance, gasoline sales, road maintenance and so on. It also includes less obvious aspects of the economy that involve the motor vehicle, such as how they contribute to the success of stores like Wal Mart. The economic value of the motor vehicle, it can be argued, provides a justification for accepting the thousands of deaths per year. While it is certainly desirable to reduce these deaths, getting rid of motor vehicles is not a viable economic option—thus autonomous vehicles are a good potential partial solution to the death problem. Or are they?

One obvious problem with the autonomous vehicle solution is that they are trying to solve the death problem within a system created around human drivers and their wants. This system of lights, signs, turn lanes, crosswalks and such is extremely complicated—thus creating difficult engineering and programing problems. It would seem to make more sense to use the resources being poured into autonomous vehicles to develop a better and safer transportation system that does not center around a bad idea: the individual motor vehicle operating within a complicated road system. On this view, autonomous vehicles are solving an unnecessary problem: they are merely better hammers.

This line of argumentation can be countered in a couple ways. One way is to present the economic argument again: autonomous vehicles preserve the individual motor vehicle that is economically critical while being likely to reduce the death fee paid for this economy. Another way is to argue that the cost of creating a new transportation system would be far more than the cost of developing autonomous vehicles that can operate within the existing system. A third way is to make the plausible case that autonomous vehicles are a step towards developing a new transportation system. People tend to need a slow adjustment period to major changes and the autonomous vehicles will allow a gradual transition from distracted human drivers to autonomous vehicles operating with the distracted humans to a transportation infrastructure rebuilt entirely around autonomous vehicles (perhaps with a completely distinct system for walkers, bikers and runners). Going back to the hammer analogy, the self-swinging hammer would reduce hammer injuries and could allow a transition to be made away from hammer swinging altogether.

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7 Responses

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on February 15, 2017 at 7:12 pm

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 17, 2017 at 6:27 pm

      True, autonomous vehicles will provide companies like Google with even more data about us. That is a key part of the information economy: we are the sheep and our data is the wool.

  2. nailheadtom said, on February 18, 2017 at 2:38 am

    In 2015 there were over 3,200,000,000,000 vehicle miles driven in the US. With about 32,000 deaths attributable to motor vehicle accidents, which means that over 100 million miles were driven for each fatality, a distance somewhat in excess of that from the earth to the sun. Statistically, an American driver would have to drive around the circumference of the earth 4200 times in order to be in a fatal crash or make a round trip by car from New York to Los Angeles 17,775 times. Travel from point A to point B in the US today is without a doubt the safest it’s ever been anywhere in world history.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 20, 2017 at 5:20 pm

      Are you implying there is no real need for autonomous vehicles because it is already safe enough? Or something else?

  3. nailheadtom said, on February 22, 2017 at 9:27 pm

    There’s risk in every activity. There’s an element of danger in taking a bath, climbing up on a stepladder to hang a picture, eating a hot dog. If you knew there to be a dozen serial killers in mainland China would you hesitate to visit Shanghai?

  4. ronster12012 said, on February 23, 2017 at 11:01 am


    One thing that you left out of your analysis of the motor vehicle, by concentrating on only its economic value, is that the private motor vehicle has been the greatest liberator of the ordinary person in history.

    We can go anywhere any time of the day or night without reference to anyone’s permission or timetables.We can travel further afield in search of better job opportunities or cheaper housing. We don’t have to worry about getting mugged or raped traveling on public transport. If more than one person is travelling in a car, itwill be cheaper than traveling by public transport. What is not to like?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 23, 2017 at 6:58 pm

      Those are certainly points worth considering; although the safety value of being protected from muggers and rapists is offset by the risk of accidents on the road. And being carjacked.

      One could also have liberty by running or biking while armed (to deal with the rapists and muggers).

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