TOPIC GUIDE: Autonomous vehicles

"Autonomous vehicles will make driving safer"

PUBLISHED: 26 Aug 2016

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

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In 2015 the UK’s first self-driving pod - the LUTZ Pathfinder – was made public by the government-funded Transport Systems Catapult [Ref: Transport Systems Catapult]. This follows in the wake of the launch in 2010 of technology giant Google’s Self-Driving Car project to “make driving safer, more enjoyable and more efficient.” [Ref: Google] Google asked us to imagine a point where: “Deaths from traffic accidents—over 1.2 million worldwide every year—could be reduced dramatically, especially since 94% of accidents in the U.S. involve human error” [Ref: Google], and Transport Systems Catapult additionally suggest that we could see, “a marked reduction in congestion as well as…benefits to the environment” from autonomous vehicles [Ref: Transport Systems Catapult]. The idea of ‘autonomous vehicles’ isn’t a new one [Ref: Computer History Museum], but the advent of these projects has caused both excitement and concern. Supporters of the new technology argue that: “The strongest case for self-driving cars is safety” [Ref: Guardian], whilst others are concerned that self-driving cars, “introduce a whole new category of road user…that entirely lacks an understanding that all those road users share” [Ref: Slate], and question how this new automated technology will integrate into a human-controlled and human-centred environment. The recent fatal crash of a Tesla car [Ref: Wired] in the USA [Ref: ABC News] has brought into focus the possible limitations of the technology, with some arguing that talk of automation and ‘autopilots’ “encourage people to think that the systems are more capable than they really are, and that is a serious problem.” [Ref: Scientific American] So is the future of driving a safer, autonomous one, or is that still a futuristic dream? What are the pros and cons of this new technology?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Safety first
One of the key motivations given for a move to autonomous cars is improving road safety. Cars that are able to anticipate risky situations and avoid them will, it is argued, reduce road-traffic accidents, “helping to make the roads safer for everyone.” [Ref: Telegraph] The small fleet of Google automated cars (both commercial makes and Google’s own prototype) have driven over a million miles within California since 2009 [Ref: Telegraph], but in February this year one of their vehicles had an accident and collided with a public transport bus [Ref: Financial Times], with Google admitting the computer made an “incorrect assumption about where [the bus] would go”, and that the crash would not be the last [Ref: Daily Mail]. That incident is considered an important moment, not only because it’s the first one where the technology has been deemed to bear ‘some responsibility’ for the incident [Ref: Daily Mail], but because it highlights the concerns of some about the safety of driverless cars more broadly. Whilst future autonomous vehicles might be able to safely “navigate roads, they don’t think like humans”, and some question whether autonomous cars can really be safe in an environment where they need to interact with humans, and as such, it will be difficult for them to “cope with the uncertainty and complexity of human behaviour.” [Ref: Popular Mechanics] But others call for perspective on the Google car crash, and ask us to consider “the number of crashes that occurred on the same day that were the result of human behaviour.” [Ref: BBC News]

Man vs Machine
For writer Carl Franzen, “the biggest issue with self-driving cars lies in their inability to make moral and ethical decisions for which human drivers have so far been almost entirely responsible. Would-be autonomous carmakers might be uncomfortable programming such choices into their systems, but human drivers make such momentous split-second decisions with regularity.” [Ref: Popular Mechanics] The development of artificial intelligence (AI), including in transport, has led some to consider ethical and moral questions about introducing this new technology into our lives. Human drivers make constant judgements – practical and moral – especially about the safety of ourselves and those around us, but will computers be programmed to do the same, and if so what decisions will their algorithms make? “Here is the nature of the dilemma. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?” [Ref: MIT Technology Review] Others contest that: “When machines take over, the work required of the human is typically not removed”, but rather our interaction with cars changes, and instead we will be a “monitor—one who constantly watches to detect and correct technology failures” and that we should welcome “a cooperative effort between humans and technology—one where the human plays a vital, active role in systems that optimize the interaction between the driver and the technology” [Ref: Newsweek].

Who takes responsibility?
One of the key questions in the debate about autonomous vehicles is who will be responsible in the event of an accident, and if we can hold a machine to account as we do people. The UK government has already begun to put in place legislation to allow automated vehicles onto UK roads and to be insured under existing polices by 2020 [Ref: Auto Express]. But some argue that even if the law and ethics of autonomous vehicles are resolved: “Insurers still need to make confident judgments about risk, and this will be very difficult.” [Ref: Atlantic] To be able to make such judgements about risks, and responsibilities, the law currently requires someone, or something, to be ultimately accountable for decisions made. That raises the interesting idea of extending to robots “legal personhood’ which, argues one commentator, is “less about what is or is not a flesh-and-blood person and who/what is or is not able to be hauled into court.” [Ref: Atlantic] But British transport writer Christian Wolmar argues that our current focus on automation is misplaced and that even if the “legal, social, economic, political and practical” issues are resolved, an automated “takeover of the mainstream transport system is about as likely as the long-awaited arrival of the futuristic jet packs of 1960s comic books.” [Ref: New Statesman] Yet Google and other developers point to the prospect of the new technology opening up driving and mobility to many more of us, meaning, “everyone could get around easily and safely, regardless of their ability to drive. Ageing or visually impaired loved ones wouldn’t have to give up their independence. Time spent commuting could be time spent doing what you want to do.” [Ref: Google] So is a move to automation an unquestionable good for society, a threat to life, or a pipe dream?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Where to? A history of autonomous vehicles

Computer History Museum 2016


Safety first: the future of driving

Tim Gibson Telegraph 15 January 2016

Driving should be illegal

Kevon Roose Fusion 5 October 2015

Google’s self-driving cars are ridiculously safe

Robert Montenegro Big Think June 2015


Transport’s favourite myth: why we will never own driverless cars

Christian Wolmar New Statesman 10 April 2016

The big question about driverless cars no one seems able to answer

Brian Fung Washington Post 17 February 2016

Why self-driving cars aren’t ready to share the road with humans

Carl Franzen Popular Mechanics 5 February 2015


Why self-driving cars must be programmed to kill

MIT Technology Review 22 October 2015

The driverless car debate: how safe are autonomous vehicles?

Lauren Keating Tech Times 28 July 2015

The moral challenges of driverless cars

Keith Kirkpatrick Communications 2015


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Deadly Tesla crash exposes confusion over automated driving

Larry Greenemeier Scientific American 8 July 2016

Can self-driving cars cope with illogical humans?

Mark Prig Daily Mail 14 March 2016

Driverless cars pose worrying questions of life and death

Andy Sharman Financial Times 20 January 2016

How can we make sure that driverless cars are safe?

Matt McFarland Los Angeles Times 22 December 2015

Humans are slamming into driverless cars and exposing a key flaw

Keith Naughton Bloomberg 8 December 2015

Uber and out: is there a future for driving?

Battle of Ideas 17 October 2015

Tesla’s cars now drive themselves, kinda

Molly McHugh Wired 14 October 2015

When humans and robots share the roads

Adrienne Lafrance Atlantic 9 October 2015

Future proofing: Mobility

BBC Radio 4 26 September 2015

The ethics of autonomous cars

Patrick Lin Atlantic 8 October 2013

The trollable self-driving car

Samuel English Anthony Slate 2012

Self-driving pods

Transport Systems Catapult


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


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