Golden rays of sunshine stream through the mountaintops, illuminating the rugged contours of the ocher-hued landscape. Past the curves of the road and peeking between trees lies a glimpse of frothy waves lapping against a pristine sandbar. Paradise, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway, spans the gorgeous coastline of California and beckons me to visit. As a Jersey girl, scenic highways and reasonable climates are not part of my life; perhaps this is why California seems so attractive.

According to Google Maps, it takes 1.875 days of driving to travel from New Jersey to California. This route cuts across 11 different states. Though I may be crazy for considering a road trip to the other side of the country, I have technology on my side. Thanks to Google’s driverless car, I could reach the golden state within 45 hours of nonstop driving.

Most of the country has never seen a driverless car prototype chugging through local streets, but California, Nevada, Florida and Michigan residents regularly see Google’s iconic Lexus model making rounds throughout the area. With Google’s plan to release driverless cars by 2017, however, it is time for all states to prepare to see these vehicles on their streets.

This technology will usher in an age of safer streets. With automobile accidents responsible for 1.24 million deaths per year, and 90 percent of those accidents caused by human error, technology’s ability to reduce these horrific statistics would be extraordinary. Driverless cars will also minimize traffic jams, increase fuel efficiency and let commuters regain time lost travelling.

The basic concept of a driverless car is that machinery mimics human drivers with robotic precision so less error occurs. However, to truly emulate the human mind, the machinery would seem to need a conscience, an issue that raises some concerns.

Driving sometimes requires ethical decision-making. If a pigeon lands on the road, you will not stop driving since you know the bird can fly away. Now imagine entering a tunnel when a child suddenly runs into the road and trips. You don’t have enough time to brake and avoid a crash. You have the option to hit and kill the child, or to swerve right into the tunnel’s wall and kill yourself. This question is known in ethics as the Tunnel Problem, and in this context, the driver would rely on her gut moral code to make a split-second decision. However, what would happen in an autonomous car? Can we trust a computing system to make the right ethical decision, if there is even a right choice in the first place?

Ever since Google announced its goal to develop a driverless car in 2010, there has been immense coverage of the engineers who have masterminded this revolutionary technology. The value of computer science has exponentially increased since society has realized what programming is capable of accomplishing.

However, there has not been an autonomous car developer that has discussed the ethics involved with such vehicles. This is where science has failed us; science can tell us how to build astonishingly complex and intelligent systems, but it does not tell us the social and ethical implications of our creations.

According to a Patrick Lin, a professor at California Polytechnic, industry representatives are shocked to hear that self-driving car development requires ethical considerations. When Time tried to contact different automobile agencies for their opinion on this issue, BMW, Audi and Ford refused to comment. Car companies are not programming their cars with an ethics code — which means that if nothing is done to convince them otherwise, the first decade following the release of self-driving cars could be marked by ethical controversy over certain kinds of accidents.

We need to start having this conversation now, rather than wait until years after serious concerns arise. Programmers, ethicists, engineers, and legislators must determine how to give these vehicles an ethical system. This process will require maturity and foresight, but it is crucial to address these concerns before self-driving cars are released. I fervently hope these issues are properly addressed so we have complete confidence in the product and the new era into which we are heading.

 

Nikita Deshpande is a freshman in the College. The Century Cap appears every other Friday.

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