This week in automated cars

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Automated cars are going to be a big part of our driving future and within a few decades could replace it entirely. However, while a lot of the big innovations are still a few years away, many important developments are taking place right now. So without further ado, here’s some of the biggest driverless car stories from this week.

How do you handle the ethics of automated piloting?

In the past, only philosophers ever really addressed the ethical implications of what happens when an AI has to make an impossible decision. Given the choice between potentially crashing into a group of schoolchildren or adults, a human is likely to choose the latter, as horrific as it might be. But what would an AI do? In films, we’ve seen interpretations of this where those with the highest chance of survival are given precedence, but should that be the case and who should make that decision?

These are discussion that today, are far from the class room and should be taking place in the engineering labs of all automated car developers, as before long, a car is going to have to make that impossible choice and the outcome of it could very well shape the future of automated car development and legislation long term, since it will have a big impact on public opinion.

“When an accident does finally happen, someone will say: well, a human wouldn’t have caused that accident,” warns Herbert Winner, head of the automotive engineering faculty at Darmstadt University of Technology (via FT). “People accept that we all make mistakes, but robots are expected to be infallible.”

Maybe this is why Google's cars look so friendly?

Maybe this is why Google’s cars look so friendly?

Of course robots are only as infallible as their programming allows, which is why those same philosophers and ethicists are now being hired on by car-makers to try and figure out the best way to handle such situations. So far the general consensus has been that the driverless vehicles should act as humans do, acting in whatever way it can to try and avoid an accident.

However, while that sort of statement on internal programming is fine when it comes to slow speed incidents and crashes, where avoiding it could be as simple as hitting the brakes for the ‘driver,’ when it comes to full driverless cars travelling at high speed, it’s going to be far more difficult to avoid such ethically bending situations. And it’s going to be very difficult to provision for them too. When it comes to human drivers, we never have to deal with those situations until they arise, but in the case of pre-programming an automated vehicle, those choices need to be made in advance. But in-many countries it is actually illegal to weigh one human life against another, so the car’s programming may not allow it to choose between one death and another.

The answer may be not to prioritise one group over another, but to opt for the least likely accident outcome. If there is a slim chance that one group may be able to avoid an accident altogether, perhaps the vehicle will choose that. Or the ‘driver’ in the car could choose an accident profile that could allow for some measure of responsibility to be placed at the feet of the car’s owner.

It’s very difficult.

Will automated cars kill off current brands?

One of the most interesting things in the past few years, has been the growth of new car brands as part of the push for new car technologies. Tesla started the trend off a few years ago with Elon Musk’s push for electric vehicles and it was followed shortly after by Google’s announcement of its driverless vehicles which have been racking up thousands of miles on Californian roads for the past few years. It too was trailed by Chinese search giant equivalent, Baidu, which announced last year that it had partnered with BMW to develop driverless vehicles.

These are all pretty new businesses or at least new ventures as part of old ones, which begs the question, will the driverless vehicles of the future be very different from the ones we have now? Will the old guard of the car industry, which championed comfort, performance, image and style survive in a world where people don’t own their own transport and instead rely on publicly or privately own vehicles from organisations to get around?

Is anyone going to buy a Ferrari or Lamborghini driverless car? Will those brands simply disappear?

This was the question put to the community of MarketingMagazine this week. Drawing on statistics that show a decrease in car ownership in major cities, even well before the driverless revolution, what will happen it asked, when automated vehicles dominate?

Kill off brands? Not if Audi has something to say about it.

Kill off brands? Not if Audi has something to say about it.

Initially at least, it suggests that we could look at a world split in two, with the majority of people owning cars or renting them based on comfort, connectivity and convenience, whereas a small subset will continue to buy the driver-driven cars of old based around style and performance. That latter category may end up being pretty expensive, so being able to control where your car goes yourself could end up being quiet the luxury.

As pointed out, that’s exactly what happened with horses when the car took over.

Regardless of what consumers will do – who will always have an appropriate reaction to a market – auto-makers are in a tough position as they need to decide what they’re going to do in order to position their business to remain profitable in the years to come. Whether we all end up buying our own driverless cars or using ones from a company or local authorities, either way, we’re going driverless and that means that cars of old will not be as applicable anymore. Some will still buy them, but not enough of them to support the industry the way it is at the moment.

Idaho debates whether to allow driverless cars

Although many of the world’s countries have begun driverless car trials of various types and with a number of different goals, there are still a lot of places in the world where even limited test runs are entirely illegal. Like almost every US state for example. However this week saw the US Senate debate a bill that would allow for self-piloted cars to take to the roads of Idaho in a limited capacity if approved.

The plan, put forward by the bill’s proponents, suggests that driverless cars could be tested in the state to help further research and development of the technology, which is expected to be worth as much as £900 billion a year industry within a decade.

Despite big fans of automated cars pushing the tech forward for the Western state however, there is some big opposition to the bill and from surprising sources too. Despite them being keen to have driverless technology adopted by other states and countries, both Google and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers oppose the bill in its current state. Instead, they want amendments made to it before passing, stating that in its current guise, it would stifle development.

Their reasoning for this, is because in the current bill being put forward to the Senate, it would be a legal requirement that all driverless cars have a passenger be alert and ready to take the wheel at a moment’s notice, should something go wrong. This is similar legislation to that which we’ve seen in the UK and is designed to give some measure of accountability to the person within the driverless car, stripping any blame from the manufacturer or developer.

While in theory this might make sense, in practice it’s quite silly, since if someone is paying attention to the road at all times, they might as well just drive themselves, defeating the point of a car being automated. Both Google and AAA want to see the bill changed to allow for at least some cars to be driven without the need for an alert human in them at all.

At the time of writing the Senate has put the bill on hold to see if an amendment can be made to accommodate everyone’s feelings. Likely we’ll learn more in the coming weeks.

Insurers are scared of driverless cars

One aspect of automated vehicles that has everyone wondering how it will turn out, is insurance. Do we need it when chances are these cars are never going to crash or at least, be responsible for a crash? Even in the case that it does, how can it be the fault of passengers who have no input in how the car operates? Whether automated cars leads to less risky road travel or less car owners than ever before, insurance firms are worried, as it seems that whatever scenario you decide on, the amount of money made by car insurance is going to diminish.

These concerns were outed by three separate insurers this week, who stated in earnings calls to investors, that they may struggle to maintain current levels of profitability once driverless cars begin to take hold in the marketplace. The first of the trio, Ohio-based insurer, Cincinnati Financial Corp. said in its report, that it believes automated vehicles and other technological advances, could reduce demand for its insurance products.

insurance

This sentiment was echoed by Mercury General Corp, an insurer based mostly in California. It’s spokesman extended their warning beyond driverless cars and also included the recent creation of Usage Based Insurance (UBI) policies, suggesting that they would alter the way the insurance is currently underwritten and too, will impact profitability. This one seems particularly interesting as it suggests that more accurate risk profiling is actually bad for business, suggesting perhaps that Mercury understands that overpricing insurance beyond the risk of the customer is a good money maker.

The last company to mention insurance this week, was Traverlers Cros., which said during its call that new technology was going to transform the marketplace and ultimately consumer demand too, meaning that policy pricing would have to fall in-line in order to remain competitive.

As MarketWatch points out though, it’s not just insurers that are worried, but some car part makers too, who believe that without the regular collisions that humans cause on the roads, that its business and industry will have far less work that they have at the moment.

For sure, the next few decades are going to be very disruptive to the traditional auto industry.

India is getting driverless cars too

Although there are a few countries vying to be at the forefront of automated car development, India has been rather quiet on the topic, despite having more cars than many other countries put together and a severe problem with road safety. That ends today however, as Indian multinational firm, Mahindra Group, has announced that it is teaming up with a conglomerate of other companies, including Tesla, Google, BMW and Audi, to develop automated cars for India’s roadways.

The new technological focus comes out of the firm’s Mahindra Reva electronic development department. According to a senior executive (via ET), “[Mahindra has] already begun experiments in our R&D facility in Bengaluru. Once we get approvals from the respective governments, we’ll start testing these cars on road,”

mahindra

While they did say that the tests of the technology being developed may take place in other countries like the UK and Singapore, software to control how the cars will behave on the roads will be developed in-house in India. While there may be more advanced developments taking place elsewhere in the world, due to different styles of driving and regulations in different countries, it makes sense for India to develop its own automated standard.

This will be a bridge that needs crossing when it comes to international travel in driverless cars.

Mahindra has since said it will utilise sensor readings from its electronic vehicles – which currently number around 2,000 in India – to map out streets and detect potential problems with automated vehicles travelling on specific roadways.

Conclusion

It’s been a busy week in driverless cars and not just because trials in the UK are continuing. There’s new trends emerging elsewhere in the world and far more than just the early adopters now looking to self-piloted vehicles as the future. Colour me excited.

Image source: Andrew Stelmentz

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.