Autonomous Decisions


20 October 2016

On 7 May, 40-year-old Joshua Brown died in a car crash near Williston, Florida. So many people die in car crashes that this in itself is hardly remarkable, but Brown was driving a Tesla Model S in Autopilot mode at the time. So the Tesla was in fact driving Brown as it collided with a tractor trailer turning left. The large white side of the trailer against a brightly lit sky apparently rendered the truck ‘invisible’ to the Tesla’s systems, and so the brake was not applied.

This is not the first time a human has been killed by a robot or autonomous machinery, but it is a very high profile death, partly because of the massive systemic change suggested by autonomous vehicles (AVs). This change is replete with unknown consequences. Indeed, paraphrasing Cedric Price, if autonomous vehicles are the answer, is the question that most 21st-century of puzzles: which jobs are best done by people, and which are best done by code?

Airliners still have pilots despite being largely flown by autonomous systems, as much systems design orthodoxy recommends "the human in the loop”. With this in mind, should driving be a joint effort between human and code, or is code increasingly so much better at driving that the addition of people can only make it worse? Or is "the human in the loop" simply so we have someone to blame when things go wrong?

A fully autonomous service may be the most transformative approach. Research by ETH, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics university situated in Zürich, suggests that a shared autonomous on-demand fleet of taxibots could remove 80 per cent of private vehicles from many of our cities. Imagine the impact on city space and street life, never mind safety. But how did all those cars get there in the first place? Are we so incapable of making good decisions about urbanism that we need autonomous chariots as Trojan Horses?

The mass introduction of cars was one of the worst non-decisions we've taken as a society – in terms of deaths and injuries, carbon, air quality, obesity, social fabric, and general deterioration of urban space and city life. Now we are on the verge of a similar revolution with AVs, yet this time it is intentional. But are we any better prepared for this broader debate about our cities? Is Tesla driving towards this future too fast? Are legacy car manufacturers too resistant? Are policymakers better practiced in urbanism either way? Design's role in framing questions here may be more useful than styling a chassis.

Perhaps we could take a more active decision this time – a choice with civic gain in mind as well as individual – and which actively looks to prevent people dying in the process? Could Joshua Brown be the first and last casualty of this transformation?