Last month, California regulators allowed two companies that operate self-driving cars to accept paying customers in San Francisco. The first week did not go well. One car drove itself onto freshly poured concrete in a road construction zone with traffic cones and workers with flags. The car got stuck in the wet concrete, and the company will be paying to repave the road.
In a more serious incident, a passenger in a driverless car was injured in a collision with a fire truck. As a result, the operator agreed to halve the number of driverless vehicles it operated in San Francisco.
The decision to permit self-driving cars may usher in a new era of transportation, or it may prove to be a false dawn. Either way, the issues surrounding self-driving cars illustrate many of the ethical questions raised by the impact of artificial intelligence on everyday life.
A world in which most vehicles were fully autonomous would have many advantages. Most private cars spend a great deal of time idle. If everyone could call up an autonomous vehicle whenever required, there would be no need to own one’s own car, thus saving resources. Moreover, by keeping traffic flowing more smoothly, the widespread use of driverless cars may also save fuel and time.
But the most important reason for eliminating human drivers is that it could also eliminate the human errors that cause so many traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths. (The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration puts the death toll on US roads last year at 42,795.)…