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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Are Guns Analogous to Cars?

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on February 8, 2013
Case O' Guns

Case O’ Guns (Photo credit: Gregory Wild-Smith)

One common strategy in the various gun debates is to compare guns and other dangerous things, such as cars. Interestingly, both those who favor and those who oppose increased limitations make use of this comparison.

Since this is an age of micro-communication, the comparison is often made rapidly and without adequate development. However, it does seem useful to expand a bit on the comparison and present some properly developed arguments.

An analogical argument is an argument in which one concludes that two things are alike in a certain respect because they are alike in other respects. Formally, an argument by analogy looks like this:

  • Premise 1: X and Y have properties P,Q,R.
  • Premise 2: X has property Z.
  • Conclusion: Y has property Z.


The first premise establishes the analogy by showing that the things (X and Y) in question are similar in certain respects (properties P, Q, R, etc.).  The second premise establishes that X has an additional quality, Z. The conclusion asserts that Y has property or feature Z as well. Since this is an inductive argument, the truth of the premises is supposed to make the conclusion likely to be true rather than certainly true.

A Škoda Superb II car. Français : Une automobi...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The strength (quality) of an analogical argument depends on three factors. First, the more properties X and Y have in common, the better the argument. Second, the more relevant the shared properties are to property Z, the better the argument. Third, it must be determined whether X and Y have relevant dissimilarities as well as similarities. The more dissimilarities and the more relevant they are, the weaker the argument. Now the basics of the argument by analogy have been presented, I can proceed to the main attraction—comparing guns and cars.

Those who favor increased limitations on guns can avail themselves of an analogy between guns and cars that involves the fact that driving is highly regulated. To be specific, the argument for more restrictions on guns could be framed as follows:



  • Premise 1: Cars and guns are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: The operation of a car is extensively regulated by law and requires that the operator be properly trained and licensed.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the operation of a gun should be extensively regulated by law and require that the operator be properly trained and licensed.

Since this is a very brief argument, the specific regulations, licensing and so on would need to be properly specified in a very extensive case for more extensively regulating guns. Despite its concise presentation, the argument does seem appealing. After all, if I cannot drive my truck around without having a license and insurance, it would seem to make sense that (for similar reasons) I should not be able to have a gun without being properly licensed and insured. At the core of the justification is, of course, the fact that both guns and cars are machines that can cause considerable damage either by accident or intent.

Despite the appeal of this comparison, there are differences between cars and guns that could break the analogy. The most obvious is, at least in the United States, that gun ownership is taken to be a legal and moral right, whereas driving is regarded as a privilege. Intuitively, restricting a right would require stronger justification than restricting a privilege.

Interestingly, the analogy can be accepted but it could be claimed that it does not justify more limitations on guns. After all, the regulation of cars covers the operation of the car in public—that is, on roads where there are other people. If I wish to drive my truck around only on my own land, then I do not require a license and the regulations governing this are rather limited.

In the case of guns, a person who wishes to bring a gun into public places generally needs a concealed weapon permit (which requires training and an extensive background check). Hunting, even on private land, also requires a license (which requires proof of training). A person can, however, travel to a legitimate shooting range with her gun without a license—but the gun must be properly stored (typically in a case). A person can also have a weapon in her dwelling (with some exceptions) and even fire it on her property, provided that the discharge of firearms is not restricted there (which is most often the case anywhere but out in the country).

Because of this, it could be concluded that the gun laws are already comparable to the laws governing cars and hence there is no need to increase the restrictions on guns. This could, of course be countered by arguing that guns are different from cars in ways that would warrant more extensive regulations. However, this would obviously involve abandoning the argument by analogy that compared cars and guns.

As noted above, it is also possible to draw a comparison between cars and guns aimed at showing that there should not be severe restrictions on gun ownership.


  • Premise 1: Guns and cars are dangerous machines that can cause harm or death intentionally or accidentally.
  • Premise 2: Private ownership of guns should be severely restricted.
  • Conclusion: Therefore, the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted.


Obviously enough, those taking a pro-gun position would take this analogy to lead to what they would hope most would regard as an absurdity or at least unacceptable, namely that the private ownership of cars should be severely restricted. Behind the argument is, of course, the principle that what justifies severely restricting ownership of a dangerous machine is its capacity to cause harm intentionally or accidentally. By this principle, if gun ownership should be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm, then car ownership should also be severely restricted on the grounds that doing so will avoid harm. Guns and cars both have causal roles in the harms caused intentionally or accidentally by people (and cars also contribute extensively to pollution and climate change making them potentially more damaging than guns).

Just as those who favor severe restrictions on guns tend to claim that the police can provide the protection citizens require, it could be claimed that public transport would provide the transportation that citizens require. Obviously enough, someone who favors severe restrictions on cars and is in favor of public transportation might regard this argument as reasonable rather than a reduction to absurdity.

This analogy can be countered by pointing out differences between guns and cars. One obvious difference is that guns are designed to cause harm while cars are designed to transport people. Cars are lethal weapons—but unintentionally so. However, it is not clear that this difference is relevant to the matter of regulation. After all, the fact that a car is not designed to kill people does not make those killed by cars any less dead. What seems to matter is the impact of the machine and not its intended function.

This can be countered by contending that guns do not have a legitimate use in civilian hands that would justify tolerating the harms involving guns. In contrast, the value of cars warrants tolerating the harms and deaths involving cars. This case can be made and would involve assessing the value of guns and cars relative to the harms done by allowing people to privately own them. That is, how many deaths it is acceptable to pay for private ownership of cars versus private ownership of guns. If cars are worth the cost and guns are not, then the analogy would break, thus allowing private ownership of guns to be severely restricted while allowing far less restriction on the private ownership of cars.

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Parking Madness

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on September 24, 2011
Bad parking

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Although I pay for faculty parking, I almost always end up parking at the football stadium in the general parking. This is mainly because I would rather walk to my office than drive around and around trying to find an open spot. I could pay a lot more for gated parking, but I’d rather just walk. If I was an administrator, I could get my own assigned parking spot, right near my office. However, I am a mere faculty member and hence unworthy of such perks.

When I first started parking in the stadium, I went to do a right turn into a space and almost got rammed as a student tried to shoot past me by driving through the parking spaces to my right (which are right against the sidewalk). Fortunately, I saw the oncoming car and was able to stop in time. The next time I went to park, I slowed down and put on my turn signal, hoping that would indicate I was, in fact, trying to park. I almost got hit again as another driver tried to go past me-once again on my right side and once again by driving through the parking spaces. In both cases, there was plenty of room on my left and no oncoming cars. As such, I was not sure why the drivers decided to do what they did-unless they wanted me to hit them or they wanted to hit me. Or maybe  they had…parking madness.

In the face of this madness, I adopted a strategy of just coming to a stop  after  turning on my signal when there is a vehicle shooting up behind me (people always seem to be in a huge hurry in the lot and pissed that anyone ahead of them might be slowing down to park). Half the time, they whip around to my left. Half the time they whip around to my right and go through the parking spaces. I do wonder if they would just ram a car if anything was parked there.  So far I have managed to avoid getting slammed into, but I suspect it is just a matter of time before someone rear ends my truck while under the influence of parking madness.

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Auto Blues

Posted in Business by Michael LaBossiere on February 4, 2010
The Benz Patent Motorwagen was built in 1885
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This has not been a good time for the automobile industry. While the folks who make and sell cars have not had the misfortune of being a target of choice for terrorist groups, the auto industry has been badly damaged. The once mighty and world dominating American auto companies are no longer titans of the industry. GM, for example, is now a sad little ward of the state thanks to decades of poor decision making.

The plummet of the American companies would seem to have offered foreign companies yet another golden opportunity to increase their already significant lead. However, Toyota stumbled badly recently with the infamous accelerator problem.

While the slumping economy has hurt sales, the damage to the auto companies has been self-inflicted. As noted above,the folks at GM drove the company into the ground. The folks at Toyota built cars with a serious defect and did not handle the problem quite well enough.

From a rational standpoint, this would seem to be a poor time to buy American or buy a Toyota.  After all, some of Toyota’s top models are affected and it is hard to say at this point how far the damage t0 the brands and the company will extend.

While the other auto  companies might be able to step and grab more territory, it might be the case that consumers will be increasingly wary-and justifiably so. Given that the consumer economy is already rather slow, this could create an even greater slowdown in this aspect of the economy.

It is natural to wonder how such a serious defect was allowed in these vehicles. Part of the problem is that conditions in the real world can create some serious surprises even after equipment has been tested. Another part of the problem is that companies often cut corners and hope that the cut will be good for their bottom line and not turn out to be a disaster.

Handling problems is also problematic. One major concern for companies is, of course, law suits. As such, the company folks do not want to take responsibility too early and they want to act so as to minimize the cost the company. Of course, such steps can be seen as dithering and delaying and this hardly helps with the problem.

Toyota might, like other companies have done, be able to restore its reputation. It might even be able to come out of this situation better than it went into it-but this remains to be seen. In any case, time will tell.

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Obama & Cars

Posted in Environment, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2009
Exxon gas pumps in Framingham, MA.
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Obama today gave a speech revealing a new nationwide policy on gas mileage. Although automakers have some time to meet the requirements, the ultimate goal is for cars to get 39 miles per gallon and light trucks to get 30 miles per gallon. Interestingly, automakers are supposed to hit an average level of fuel efficiency so that large vehicles that get lousy mileage can be offset by vehicles that get excellent fuel economy. So, a company that wants to seel big SUVs will need to make sure that they sell enough high efficiency vehicles to meet the required average.

It might strike people as odd that representatives from the auto industry, the unions, and enviromental groups all backed this plan. However, they all had good reasons to do so. First, consumers are still more concerned about gas mileage than they have been in the past. While gas prices are relatively low, people seem to remember the $4 a gallon days and seem more inclined to want a vehicle that uses less fuel. Since th automakers want to sell cars, they need to take this into account.

Second, various enviromental groups apparently were bringing lawsuits against automakers. Apparently, these suits will be dropped in favor of the current plan. So, the environementalists get some of what they want and the automakers avoid having to fight a legal battle.

Third, having a unfied standard is, from the standpoint of automakers, better than having numerous regulations. California had planned to pass its own laws about mileage and several federal agencies were going to be involved in setting regulations. However, the current plan is to have one standard. This is much easier to deal with than numerous and possibly conflicting regulations. As such, the automakers seem willing to go along with this.

Fourth, increasing fuel efficiency has been presented as a way of reducing our dependence on foreign oil-much of which we get from countries we would (allegedly) otherwise rather not deal with. As such, this plan is supposed to help us deal with that problem.

Fifth, increasing fuel efficiency is also supposed to reduce CO2 emissions, thus enabling the plan to tap into concerns about the environment and global warming.

So, is this a good thing? On the downside, the average price of a new vehicle is supposed to be increased by about $1300 due to this and related plans. Further, companies will need to expend money for R&D in order to develop new technology. Since the economy is not doing so well now, these extra costs are matters of concern.

However, it has been pointed out that the increased fuel efficiency will offset this increased cost. Of course, this depends on how much a person drives and how expensive gas happens to be. The higher gas gets, the better it will be to have a vehicle that has more fuel efficiency.  Also, to come up with new cars to sell, companies have to do R&D anyway.

Given that the political influence of the Middle East largely arises from oil money, it seems like an excellent idea to try to reduce their income. Of course, this could lead to problems as well. For example, if the Middle Eastern economy were to suffer more, this could provide more motivation and recruits for radical groups.

Given that global warming seems to be a serious problem, reducing the emission of CO2 seems desirable. This, of course, assumes that people will not actually drive more because they get better gas mileage. It also merely serves to slow down the problem-while less CO2 would be generated, we would still be pouring out a considerable amount of CO2.

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