It will soon be easy for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. We shouldn’t let them.


It will soon be easy for autonomous cars to hide from view. It is likely that the roof lidar sensors that currently mark many of them will become smaller. Mercedes vehicles with the new partially automated Drive Pilot system, which carries its lidar sensors behind the front grille of the car, are no longer distinguishable at first glance from normal human-operated vehicles.

Is this good? As part of our Driverless Futures project at University College London, my colleagues and I recently completed the largest and most comprehensive survey of citizens’ attitudes towards self-driving vehicles and traffic rules. One of the questions we decided to ask, after more than 50 in-depth interviews with experts, was whether autonomous cars should be labeled. The consensus of our sample of 4,800 UK citizens is clear: 87% agreed with the statement “It should be clear to other road users if a vehicle is driven alone” (only 4% disagrees, and the rest is not sure).

We sent the same survey to a smaller group of experts. They were less convinced: 44% agreed and 28% disagreed that the condition of a vehicle should be announced. The question is not simple. There are valid arguments for both parties.

We could argue that, in principle, humans should know when they are interacting with robots. This was the argument put forward in 2017 in a report commissioned by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. “Robots are manufactured artifacts,” he said. “They should not be deceptively designed to exploit vulnerable users; instead, its machine nature should be transparent. “If autonomous cars are actually being tested on public roads, other road users could be considered subject to this experiment and should give something like informed consent. Another argument in favor of labeling, this practical one, is that — as with a car driven by a student driver — it is safer to take a wide step on a vehicle that may not behave like one driven by a well-practiced human. .

There are also arguments against labeling. A label could be seen as an abdication of the responsibilities of innovators, implying that others should recognize and adapt to an autonomous vehicle. And it could be argued that a new label, without a clear shared sense of the limits of technology, would only add confusion to roads that are already full of distractions.

From a scientific perspective, labels also affect data collection. If a self-driving car learns to drive and others know it and behave differently, this could contaminate the data it collects. Something like this seemed to be on the mind of a Volvo executive who told a reporter in 2016 that “just to be safe,” the company would use unmarked cars for its proposed autonomous road driving test. of the United Kingdom. “I’m pretty sure people will challenge them if they’re marked doing very hard braking in front of a standalone car or getting in the way,” he said.

In short, the arguments in favor of labeling, at least in the short term, are more convincing. This debate is more than autonomous cars. It comes at the heart of the question of how new technologies should be regulated. Developers of emerging technologies, who often present them as disruptive and change the world at first, are prone to paint them as simply incremental and hassle-free once regulators touch. But new technologies don’t just fit into the world as it is. Reform the world. If we want to realize their benefits and make good decisions about their risks, we need to be honest with them.

To better understand and manage the deployment of autonomous cars, we need to dispel the myth that computers will drive just like humans, but better. Management professor Ajay Agrawal, for example, has argued that autonomous cars do basically what drivers do, but more efficiently: “Humans have data coming in through sensors: cameras in the face and microphones. on the sides of our head — and the data comes in, we process the data with our monkey brain and then we do actions and our actions are very limited: we can turn left, we can turn right, we can slow down, we can accelerate”.



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