The first known death caused by a vehicle being operated in autopilot mode was reported by automaker Tesla Motors last month. This seriously highlights the potential shortcomings of vehicles that operate without human input. Since that time, there have been several other accidents that allegedly can be blamed on deficiencies within the Tesla Autopilot system. The Tesla Autopilot system purports to control a vehicle without need for human input using advanced cameras and radar systems. Many other automakers have similar technology, albeit to a lesser degree.
Technological advances such as electronic stability control, airbags, and lane departure warnings have made vehicles safer, but as technology continues to progress, automobile manufacturers are heading in a direction that favors computer input and decision making over human input and decision making. The basis behind the reason for developing this technology is noble. The presumed thinking is that humans are fallible and become distracted, make mistakes, and cause accidents due to poor decision making. As an attorney representing accident victims injured or killed due to the negligence of others, I frequently see the consequences of human negligence.
However, by eliminating humans from the decision making process of operating a motor vehicle and turning that control over to computers, are we giving up too much control and endangering ourselves and others in the process? Time will tell. However, consider that computers are not immune to failure. Chips wear down, circuits break, and as anyone who has ever operated a desktop computer for any length of time can attest, computers sometimes shut down for no apparent reason. Imagine that happening to your computer controlled vehicle at the speed of 65 mph while traveling down the highway with loved ones on board. Also, and perhaps most concerning, computers of all kinds are prone to hacking from outside sources. Many of the vehicles on the road are vulnerable to being controlled by hackers. With the proliferation of terrorism and computer crime on the rise, it is only a matter of time before malicious hackers plow this fertile ground at the expense of the public.
Computers have brought our society a long way. But at what cost? Do we work less? Engage more on a personal level with our families and friends? Are our lives easier? These questions are worthy of discussion and debate but we should not automatically assume that society will be safer, or better off, by attempting to engineer human fallibility out of the products we use in exchange for autonomous digital decision making.