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Ethical dilemma: Will BMW give up fully autonomous cars?

Hands off, brain off - will BMW avoid this scenario? (Photo: BMW)

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Stephan Giesler
Stephan Giesler

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BMW questions level 5 autonomy, autonomous vehicles create jobs and Uber is curbed in New York City: read our weekly analysis of the most important news in automated driving!

This famous and theoretical dilemma can cause hour-long debates because it seems unanswerable. BMW board member Ian Robertson recently told AutoCar that the dilemma may even prevent cars with level 5 automation from becoming a reality. “Imagine a scenario where the car has to decide between hitting one person or the other,” he said. “What’s it going to do? Access the diary of one and ascertain they are terminally ill and so should be hit? I don’t think that situation will ever be allowed.” Robertson said he believes that “regulators will step in and set boundaries”, possibly limiting autonomous driving to more controlled environments like motorways.

This is a remarkable statement from an exec representing a company that is very actively working on fully self-driving vehicles. Does it mean a sudden strategy shift for BMW?

It’s not likely that BMW will stop developing driverless car technology – and I think it would be regrettable, too. After all, more than 90% of all accidents are caused by human error. While no machine will ever be perfect, fully autonomous driving promises to increase road safety dramatically. It would be sad to forego the tremendous societal and individual benefits of autonomous driving that far exceed the risks. Fatalities in aviation or factories caused by machines are unfortunate – but we are willing to accept them because of the overall benefits of automation. The same should apply for driverless cars. For them to be safe, we will of course need legal certainty. That’s why it’s important to encourage public debate about it. In that regard, I consider Ian Robertson’s statement a welcome contribution.

Will driverless mean jobless?

Increased road safety is one expectation linked to automation. Another one is rising unemployment. A 2017 study by McKinsey predicted that automation could destroy as many as 73 million U.S. jobs by 2030. As for automated driving, a common fear is that it will be a job killer for truckers or cab and Uber drivers.

However, job opportunities created by automated driving are also on the rise. Autonomous driving job listings increased 27 percent year over year in January 2018, according to online employment marketplace ZipRecruiter. Not surprisingly, companies are mostly searching for engineers, technicians, software developers and designers who can build driverless cars. But other career options are also expanding. "Whether it's maintenance technicians, fleet oversight, remote oversight of the fleet, there's still going to be a need for service technicians to maintain and serve the fleet," Bert Kaufman, head of corporate and regulatory affairs at U.S. start-up Zoox told CNBC.

That’s great news – if you’re not planning to look for a job as a trucker or an Uber driver that is. I don’t see how workers without a college education will simply shift to better paid jobs if their old ones have been replaced by an autonomous vehicle. However, the effect of a decreasing total amount of work due to automation is a fact that society has to deal with in any case. Two challenges arise: one is to prepare the workers of tomorrow for a fast-changing job market. The other is to make sure low-skilled workers of today won’t be the losers of this transformational process.

Ride-hailing: It’s up to you, New York

Two weeks ago, we reported on a study that found ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft have increased traffic in larger U.S. cities significantly. Last week, the New York City Council decided to slam on the brakes: the city will not grant new licenses for any Uber or Lyft car for an entire year. The law is meant to address congestion as well as driver wages.

A commission will study the effects of the new law and evaluate them. My feeling is that a trial taking place more than 2,000 miles away from NYC could also influence the evaluation. As reported, Waymo and Valley Metro intend to begin shuttling people autonomously to and from public transportation in Phoenix at the end of 2018. If done right, this could go a long way to prove that autonomous ride-hailing services can actually reduce congestion – by solving the “first mile/last mile” problem. I bet New York City is going to be watching closely.

So long, drive safely (until cars are driverless), 

Stephan Giesler

Editor-in-Chief, 2025AD

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