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Beyond Data Episode 2: Vehicle Autonomy; the good, the bad, and the complicated

In our second Beyond Data podcast episode ‘Autonomous mass transportation and its impact on citizen privacy’, we will sit down with Beep’s Chief Technology Officer, Clayton Tino to explore the current landscape of autonomous vehicles (AVs), whether AVs truly can replace the human factor in public transportation, and how AV ethics can be holistically measured. Here we give you a snapshot of that fascinating discussion by digging into a few of the explored topics.

You can watch episode 1 here

When looking at AV ethics, there are two strands to consider:

1: The ethics programmed into the AV itself (e.g., how the AV ‘decides’ which course to take when it identifies a hazard, otherwise known as the ‘trolley car’ scenario).
2: The ethics surrounding embedding AVs into society (e.g., whether we can truly replace the human factor in AVs, or what level of surveillance AVs should have).

Going beyond the trolley car scenario

Often touted as the litmus test for AV ethics, the ‘trolley car’ or ‘trolley problem’ is a thought experiment where someone chooses between saving five people in danger of being hit by a runaway trolley by diverting the trolley to hit one person. This is extrapolated to AVs by using a scenario such as an AV traveling down the street when suddenly a group of pedestrians runs out. The AV must ‘choose’ between hitting the group or altering its course but by doing so, hitting a lone pedestrian.

The ‘Moral Machine’ experiment was an online survey of 2.3 million people worldwide that investigated the moral dilemmas faced by autonomous vehicles. The study found that moral principles guiding drivers’ decisions varied from country to country, and also women and men viewed ethical and moral situations differently. This made something like the trolley problem difficult to quantify and standardize worldwide.

Far from a simple ethics exercise…

On the surface, it seems a simple ethics exercise. But as Clayton Tino summises: “People like to think they have a preconceived notion of how they would behave, but I just don’t buy that. [A near miss] is a purely reactive response. We’re setting unrealistic expectations on the machine because we need to blame something when something goes wrong.Tessa Jones (podcast co-host) agrees, observing: “AVs need some decision-making process, but I don’t have a decision making process myself.”

As Sophie Chase-Borthwick (podcast co-host) explains: “We expect our AVs to be guaranteed safe. But we know that any other vehicles are not 100% safe with a human behind them. So we have a higher expectation of what ‘safe’ looks like when it’s autonomous [as opposed to] to when it’s a human.

In our opinion, the disproportionate emphasis placed on the trolley problem to solve the lion’s share of AV ethics is reductive and dangerous to advancing AV technology. It’s a useful piece of the puzzle but it’s a symptom when we should be focusing on fixing the cause.

In our podcast, we also explore the importance of accurate and timely hazard perception (both in humans and AVs). By improving hazard perception, it not only provides safety methods for AVs but can help reduce or mitigate entirely AVs even having to make the trolley problem decision in the first place. 

Can we ever truly replicate the human factor?

There are five levels in the maturity of autonomy of AVs – with Level 1 being no autonomy and Level 5 being a vehicle without a driver safely taking you to where you want to go.

For Clayton, Tessa and Sophie the debate centers on where the application of AVs could work best with the least blockers. They wonder whether public transportation seems an ideal choice, given how it could be geo-fenced, fixed route and hyper-local.

However, when considering AVs in the context of public transportation, they realize it’s important to look at the holistic service of public transportation, beyond just the driving. As Clayton pithily observes when considering AVs for school buses, “[Bus drivers] do a heck of a lot more than just drive the bus … they need to be aware of passenger safety and security, assistance…”.

For example, in London, there’s been some disputes between wheelchair users and pram users about who has first access to the space. Bus drivers (and others in charge of public transportation) are expected to act as mediators to settle these disputes. How would this be replicated in an AV with no human factor?

The answer could lie in more secure and closely governed surveillance. Having surveillance on public transport AVs could add a safety layer to minimize vandalism, protect the users and ensure the AVs remain a reliable and safe choice. Our podcasters observe the marked differences between privacy in the US and Europe but with the introduction of GDPR-style laws such as the California Consumer Protection Act (CPPA), there will inevitably be more scrutiny on how the surveillance data is used and stored.

However, as is often the case with autonomy when it comes to public transport there’s no easy decision. By removing the human factor, there need to be other allowances made to fill the gap. Companies and governments need to work hard to make sure both the users and their data are protected and that these allowances do not harm the end-users or misuse them for commercial purposes.

Our podcast delves more into the nuances and pitfalls when considering the commoditization of a public service, such as public transportation. Generally, the people who need it most are vulnerable, and unless there’s a significant level of transparency, can users be fully aware and able to consent to the wider implications of being surveilled?

To hear more about how we untangle and much more, watch our episode on ‘Autonomous mass transportation and its impact on citizen privacy ’.