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Autonomous Vehicles: Ethics Regulation And Programming Converge

Rivian Automotive
Rivian Automotive hopes its newly introduced electric pickup truck will become an entry into a future autonomous vehicle market.

Illinois lawmakers are among those stakeholders trying to figure out how to best position the state to get economic opportunities, but also how to take a common sense approach to regulation, and public safety while moving toward people sharing the road with autonomous vehicles.

State Representative Tom Demmer (R) represents the 90th district in north central Illinois. He's a co sponsor of the early legislation already made law on this topic. Demmer said the debate is not particularly partisan, but it IS complicated.

"The traditional manufacturers of automobiles, some new startup people, people who work on some of the technology of it so think of the software or the camera systems, there are a lot of different stakeholders here. And add to that, people who use the roadways today, both drivers, service providers, the Secretary of State's office, advocacy groups like for motorcycles, pedestrians, bicycle groups, public transportation groups, you name it," said Demmer.

Demmer said autonomous vehicles are a promising area with Illinois's historic strength in the auto industry, and high tech centered on the U of I in central Illinois. He favors an incremental approach, step by step, with a light touch. He said chances are if you guess how the technology will affect people's lives, you will guess wrong.

Demmer said initial policies should include how to do testing, where to test, where the liability lies during testing; the manufacturer, the software? He said he hopes they are not far from that.

"Less than a couple years. I think we are at a point where if we sort of agree on the scope of limiting it, I think we can get something done in the next year,' said Demmer.

And it's not just the car makers regulators should be paying attention to. State Representative Mike Fortner, (R) West Chicago, is also a co sponsor of the existing regulation. He said Caterpillar has been working on autonomous vehicles in its mining operations for decades. Agriculture implements are also very programmable. Fortner said there are different evolutionary tracks for autonomous vehicles including experiments in other countries.

"You have a lead truck with a human driver and other trucks that are designed to follow. I don't think any one is looking at that in the U.S., yet!" said Fortner.

Fortner said one thing he does not want to see in legislation is a patchwork of local rules. He said the state needs a framework to move ahead, but not final commandments.

"One only needs to look at the way our state law has had to catch up on various aspects of privacy law. We had to catch up even on securing our election systems. Technology moves in these jumps. We know that type of technology is coming and we want to be thinking about that," said Fortner.

Rivian Automotive CEO RJ Scaringe has talked about a future that includes new models of ownership. Right now, most people have a car sitting around their garage a lot of the time. It's convenient when you want to use it, but most of the time it's parked. Scaringe said if autonomous vehicles can come get you without involving the cost of a human driver, people might not need to buy the whole vehicle, just a subscription to it.

Fortner said lawmakers have already passed regulation on that issue, even before true driverless vehicles are here.

"Who owns the vehicle? Is it more like a car rental situation or more like a private ownership situation? The technology sometimes makes that a gray area and then we find competing stakeholders and have to try to see is there a solution that resolves the differences between the stakeholders? Much like we are seeing right now in the bill dealing with car sharing," said Fortner.

That measure is under review in this fall veto session of the General Assembly.

One sector that perhaps has not been as present in the discussion of regulation and development of driverless vehicles, yet, is the voice of philosophers and ethicists. Janet Fleetwood hails from the field of public health ethics. She teaches at Drexel University. Several years ago Fleetwood wrote a widely read article sounding the alarm about who is making the choices in programming autonomous vehicles.

"I think we need the engagement of public health experts, ethics experts, community members in the communities where these are being tested and legislators in order to come up with those criteria, but they are by no means settled yet, which is why it is distressing they are being rolled out in advance of a lot of analysis of these issues," said Fleetwood.

In philosophy there is something called, the trolley problem. How does a trolley operator choose which track to go down when one track has five people standing on it and the other has one? Humans make those choices as they come up. Machines have to have coding in advance that tells them what to do in a situation.

"But there are lots of other issues as well. There are impacts on a community. There are questions of fairness in long term access to autonomous vehicles. Who will have access? Will it be for the rich who can buy them. Will they be used as some form of public transportation and, if so, will it be more reasonable in cost to enable disenfranchised people and vulnerable populations to use them? Will they, unfortunately, replace our focus on public transportation?," said Fleetwood.

Waymo already has a couple billion hours of simulated driving for its software and some millions of over the road hours in California. Fleetwood said it takes more than engineers to write software that has moral implications in how a vehicle responds.

Of course debates over new technology and automation are not new; really not new. David Gunkel studies the philosophy and ethics of technology at Northern Illinois University.

"It goes way back to Plato and one of the dialogs, the Phaedras, in which people involved in the conversation were worried about writing as an autonomous kind of memory that would be disembodied from human beings, and, as a result, would, threaten certain standards for how we understand human communication and interaction," said Gunkel.

Writing did transform civilization. It allowed close analysis of argument. It preserved context from one cultural moment to another. Arguably, some scholars such as Neal Postman believed, writing and literacy led to a more logical dispassionate ability to think as human beings.

Gunkel says eventually writing became a cornerstone of human life.  He said he sees the uncertainty and questions about autonomous vehicles playing out the same way. After much uncertainty, people will get used to this latest new thing, he said.

It will be complicated though.

Gunkel said a lawyer once told him technology moves at light speed and regulation moves at pen and paper speed. He also said legal culture plays a big role in how that happens. And slow can be considered a feature, not a bug, depending on your view.

"For example in Europe where law is more statutory than it is common law based, there is a great deal of effort to try to get out in front of this, to write laws in advance of an accident occurring. Whereas in the United States, where we have a common law practice, there is more of a wait and see approach that says wait and see what happens with technology and we'll lets the courts sort it out, develop precedent, and let law evolve," said Gunkel.

Gunkel agreed with Fleetwood that interdisciplinary dialog is key.

"Engineers are problem solvers, right? So, you give an engineer a problem and they will find the shortest route to a possible solution. That route to that solution may have other consequences that are not necessarily factored into the decision making process. And that is where the ethicists and the philosophers have something to contribute, because their job is to weigh all the various factors involved from social aspects to psychological aspects to cultural aspects," said Gunkel.

In some spaces the conversation is happening. Gunkel said, Google, early on, had philosophers at the table talking about moral issues with self driving vehicles. In other places he said the conversations are not as robust.

"China is making a big play for AI. They would like to be the world leader in artificial intelligence in coming decades and one of the concerns is that their mode of operating tends to favor the STEM fields and seems to be less interested in talking to the humanists and the social scientists," said Gunkel.

Gunkel said the European Union is on the other end of that spectrum, deeply considering social costs. That could include significant job destruction, say if you don't need drivers for as many vehicles, or at all for long haul trucking.

The questions who decides who wins and loses, whose life gets valued higher, happens at a societal level and on the road. It could be there will be fewer accidents and fewer deaths with autonomous vehicles, but the lives still lost might be different lives than if humans made the decision. And interactions between humans alone are messy. How is a poor pre-programmed driverless vehicle supposed to cope with other vehicles that still have people at the wheel?

This creates liability dilemmas. Gunkel said the vehicle might hold some responsibility for the accident and software developers could be liable decades after the fact.

"Microsoft created the Tay AI Chatbot and put it on Twitter. And within six hours of interacting with users on line the chatbot became a raving neo Nazi racist, right? And Microsoft pulled the chatbot off line and tried to apologize for what went wrong. But, Microsoft never took full responsibility for the hate speech," said Gunkel.

Microsoft apologized for not anticipating the hate speech, but said the responsibility was with users who taught the chatbot its responses or the responsibility of the bot itself.

The 2008 financial collapse attracted similar arguments because of algorithm driven trading, Gunkel said.

At this point lawyers nationwide probably have gleams in their eyes over how these sorts of questions will play out in court.

But, there are also big societal shifts possible, not just winners and losers in court. Driverless vehicles could keep older people independent longer. In fact, Gunkel said that's already happening in urban areas with Uber and Lyft.

Adoption of the new tech could also result in more diffuse living because commutes can be productive when you don't have to pay attention to driving.

"Like you see with commuters on trains. You have circumstances where people are taking correspondence courses by doing on line learning. People have written novels while commuting by rail. Will we see similar sorts of things happen with passengers in vehicles that are autonomously driven? I don't know. They may just end up playing video games," said Gunkel.

Some thinkers are also speculating driverless vehicles will lead to more compact living because you won't need as much space.

Estimates of when whatever happens, will happen are all over the map, anywhere from ten years to sixty. Till whenever, Gunkel said, there will be a lot of experiments and small scale rollouts before the big picture changes.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.