(Update: After publication of this story, Lincoln opted to have the article removed from its Life-Changing Luxury series, which it described as a collaboration with Hearst, the publisher of Car and Driver, to engage consumers during the launch of the Lincoln MKX. Ford has input on the topics to be covered in the series. A Ford spokesman said the views expressed in the story do not reflect the company’s views.)
The article argues that a shift to fully self-driving vehicles “will require massive amounts of philosophical, technological, and legislative effort and change.”
There’s an important distinction here. Traditional automakers are generally paddling in the shallow end of the autonomous pool, with the promise of features such as automatic braking. Tech companies such as Google are doing cannonballs from the high dive, reimagining the automobile for the digital age, removing the driver, steering wheel and pedals. That’s the type of autonomous driving the article is poo-pooing.
There are worthy questions about the nascent technology, including how will self-driving cars handle the busiest city streets and inclement weather? How serious are the hacking risks? What privacy will passengers give up?
But the advertisement’s arguments against fully self-driving cars are the equivalent of dropping a Baby Ruth in the deep end of the autonomous pool.
Take what’s called the trolley problem. When an accident is unavoidable, should a car be programmed to hit another car or a pedestrian? Does it swerve to avoid hitting two people so that it will hit one?
“Asking your car to choose between lives is as logical as you asking your Nest thermostat whether you should spank your child,” writes the author.
Huh? There’s no parallel between the two situations. In fact, asking a machine to handle a potential accident is extremely logical, as it could prevent many of them. Self-driving cars don’t get distracted, drive drunk, or text behind the wheel. Motor-vehicle deaths are expected to surpass 40,000 in the United States this year. Around the world 1.2 million people die every year in motor vehicles. Self-driving vehicles could lower that number.
If one really cares about ethics and the fair treatment of human lives, why give the cold shoulder to a technology that is likely to save millions of them?
“According to many with a vested interest in seeing autonomous driving become reality, it’s just a few years away,” reads one passage in the story. Note the phrase, “vested interest.”
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 5 and 34. Doesn’t everyone have a vested interest in seeing the full potential of this technology arrive? But that may not be the case for the traditional automakers. If the fully autonomous vehicle is realized, and is far safer than traditional vehicles, automakers will find themselves protecting their dated businesses, not the public interest.
The article also warns that only a few states have laws allowing self-driving vehicles. What a hindrance! But some states are actually courting companies making self-driving vehicles. And while Texas hasn’t passed a specific law on self-driving vehicles, Google is testing in Austin without state interference.
If Uber can get regulators on their side against taxi companies, a technology that may save thousands of lives likely can, too. After all, the whole point of regulations is to protect the public. If self-driving car prove to be the best way to protect citizens in transit, politicians will embrace them.
The existential risk for automakers is they may not be embracing digital technologies enough. To maintain relevance, they may need to immerse in the deep end of the pool with Google, Uber and others. The alternative could be the fate of so many newspapers, bookstores, travel agents and camera companies, which didn’t leverage the strongest tools available to keep pace with innovation.
As the saying goes, don’t bring a knife to a gun fight. Yet right now the automakers are brandishing a handful of Ginsu knives.
This headline has been updated.