Tesla - Human or Autopilot?

The self-driving vehicle revolution is upon us and it brings with it some serious challenges. One such conundrum is just how much control will we give over to our vehicles. Recently, we’ve had the first fatality^ resulting from the use of this family of technologies. However, it’s important to note that the car wasn’t really self-driving.

The person died due to the (presumably) improper use of the autopilot feature. Before we rush to blame Tesla, we’ll see why this sort of half-measure is quite dangerous. Let’s take a look at what another industry that has been using autopilot functionalities for decades has learned during time:


Self-driving cars are an “all or nothing” affair

It becomes apparent that auto piloting features can cause humans to lose some of their skills. What’s even worse is that auto piloting is done in half-measures. This inconsistent state of affairs inevitably affects decision making in the brain. The results can be disastrous.

Pilots undergo extensive training before using auto piloting functions, drivers do not. Expect more such accidents to take place, unless serious changes are made in drivers’ education and training. I believe that such changes are difficult to implement and that the correct way forward is to remove the human from the driver’s seat altogether.

Slowly but surely, a human driving a car on a public street will become like seeing a horse and carriage on the motorway’s fast lane. Of course, this might seem far-fetched now, but check back in 10-20 years.


Things are going to get even more complicated when ethics start to play a role in all this. One of the essential features of self-driving cars is that they will be in permanent communication with one another. Through this, they will also gain an increased awareness of the road conditions ahead of them and each other’s occupants.

What if, for example, two self-driving vehicles realize that a collision is inevitable? Should your car kill you to save others? What if drivers start hacking their cars to protect them at all costs? Here’s a very interesting article on this subject:


One day, maybe self-driving cars will be able to make a decision about how to cause fewer fatalities during unavoidable accidents by sacrificing the car with fewer passengers. Taking this discussion further, let us consider that human lives are more than just numbers. Could self-driving cars quantify the potential of a human life? What if the Artificial Intelligence supervising the travel of more cars decides to sacrifice an entire family in order to save a highly skilled doctor?

I believe that at one point, AI will be able to decide between saving a child or a young man who is already sick of terminal cancer. There will be those that will consider such judgements unfair – letting a “machine” decide for your life is scary. But we might have to deal with this situation at one point. Accidents will always happen, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do something about reducing their impact upon our society.

Putting the drama into perspective

These are very difficult choices. I have little doubt that one day, true Artificial Intelligence might be able to tackle these problems just like we’re able to solve first grade math problems. Until then, however, we’ll be left with some serious ethical and logistical challenges to solve.

I also have little doubt that in the coming years a lot of keystrokes will be spent debating even the smallest mistake made by a self-driving vehicle. But these mistakes will probably pale in comparison with the thousands of people, many of them children, dying at the hands of reckless drivers every year.

It’s a no-brainer that self-driving cars will drastically reduce the number of deaths on our streets. I have to say this bluntly: the sooner we restrict access to our public roads, the better. Not even intelligent animals should be allowed to drive metal bullets at 130 kilometers per hour.

Last but not least, let’s not forget about the security concerns that shall arise when we’ll have a bunch of computers zooming around the motorways at high speeds. I recently wrote an article^ on this subject. I don’t even want to imagine what a terrorist attack would look like if some hacker would start tampering with the software of hundreds of speeding robots weighing a couple of tons (or many more) each.

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  1. Reply

    There’s no need for the car to make life or death decisions. There are safe driving speeds, and the cars will go for those speeds. The self driving car will not go to 120 km/h on a normal road – it will go at 50 km/h and it will take a while to get from point A to point B. The self driving car will also adjust speed based on road conditions, unlike human elements. The self driving car can connect to the Internet to search for prospects for the best route and best driving style for the next kilometers of road, and adjust automatically. The self driving car can get out of a deadlock with instructions from a higher authority (say, traffic police) without anyone touching your car. The self driving car can also allow human control. And indeed, there’s a big point about skills being harmed – but compare the skills needed to control the car assisted by sensors at 5 km/h to those needed for 100 km/h.

    • Reply

      I pretty much agree. The types of scenarios that tend to be brought up, including in the Popular Mechanics article, just don’t make any sense. Speeding toward a pedestrian crossing in such a way that the only way to avoid hitting people on it is to swerve? This would. not. happen. Self-driving cars are (or will be) much more aware than we are, meaning they can see things we don’t, no momentary laps in attention, etc. Even when you modify the scenario to be less ridiculously lacking in realism it remains unlikely. A child suddenly running out of an alley, for instance, so neither car nor human could see it in advance. Even so, the self-driving car would be significantly more likely to have actually slowed down to a speed where there is no such thing as only being able to swerve. In the end the need for making such decisions is so exceedingly small that I’m not convinced there’s much of anything wrong with selfish. But this is of course still an ethical decision, and a utilitarian one at that. Society will be a heck of a lot better off with self-driving cars, no matter what they might do in exceedingly unlikely edge cases.

    • Reply

      Speeds of 130 km/h are quite common on motorways. Of course that inside cities the speeds will be lower :). For self-driving cars, eventually 170 km/h will become a safe speed. Eventually. Not immediately. In this case, mechanical failures CAN result in life & death situations. We’re a long way from preventing any and all mechanical failures. You’ll still have a truck with an exploded front tire that might veer into the high-speed traffic, and self-driving cars WILL have to take decisions in those situations.

      • Reply

        I expect there won’t be pedestrian crossings over motorways. And a computer is more aware and more prone to act when there is a mechanical defect – just think about all those people that go with a half-broken car “because it still works”. Just think of all the people that ignore things like low oil level or “something beeps on my front panel”.

        And then look at the stats of how many deaths due to bad drivers happen in Romania. And you’ll cry for self-driving cars.

        • Reply

          Oh, I’m crying for self-driving cars even now :D. Not only will they reduce fatalities, but they will also optimize fuel consumption and, most importantly, they could drastically improve the efficiency of our car park. With a well implemented self-driving car fleet, a single car could serve dozens of families, all at a much lower cost. Maintenance costs would be shared and kilometers traveled billed directly to the users. Imagine all the parking lots that will be converted into proper living space.

      • Reply

        Frans: some time ago I read an article about how Geo Hotz (the hacker) built his own self driving car with a fraction of Google’s budget. But here’s the thing: with that fraction of the budget of a corporation you CAN perhaps cover 99% of the normal use cases. But it takes an exponentially larger amount of money to cover the 1% freak cases. And I think that’s where you’re underestimating the importance of these freak situations. Yes, OF COURSE normally these things that are debated in the press won’t happen. But it’s the 1%, or even the 0.01% that makes the difference. When it comes to human lives, we are extremely protective (I won’t start a debate regarding animal lives destroyed by cars since that’s beside the point). So that’s why this is being discussed and will continue to be. I think that protecting life is worth a lot, and us talking about these things & considering alternatives isn’t such a big price to pay.

        • Reply

          The kind of car that guy built will never be approved by any of our safety authorities if it doesn’t cover the freak cases. But my point is simple: replacing selfish human drivers with selfish AI drivers and will result in a huge improvement. The vast majority of accidents will simply evaporate. Holding off on better for the sake of “perfect” is a much, much worse scenario. Luckily this is already how the EU functions, so I needn’t worry, but that’s how a lot of arguments seem to go. Disrespectfully paraphrased, the position I oppose says that we shouldn’t allow self-driving cars until we’ve come up with an acceptable solution to an even less likely restatement of the trolley problem.

          Incidentally, what you describe about shared cars billed by the kilometer is already how we’ve got a “now and then” car at Cambio. What it’s not is a taxi. 😉

          • Can you elaborate regarding “the trolley problem”? I didn’t understand the statement, or what is “disrespectfully paraphrased”. Also: what’s the deal with the car at Cambio? Also: not sure if I’m getting if you agree with how the EU functions or if you’re just ironic. Personally I would like nothing more than the EU to act fast but responsibly regarding self-driving vehicles (start trials and in max 10 years start isolating motorway lanes for self-driving vehicles only and eventually (maybe 15 years) seal entire motorway sections for such use). However, my perception of the EU is that its bureaucratic apparatus has become slow and disorganized, forced to work by “lowest common denominator” principles.

          • The dilemma at Popular Mechanics is the trolley problem.

            Cambio is a now and then car. We need a car a few times a month at most, so it’d be silly to own one. Instead the Cambio network has cars all over Belgium (and a bunch in nearby Germany). You reserve one for a certain time period, usually the one near us, for a couple of hours to pick up cat food & litter for the month, and all you pay is a few Euro/hour plus a set cost/km. We probably average at about €15/month. There are also similar more grass-roots initiatives where people share a neighborhood or street car.

            Just like a company like Uber I reckon Cambio already has the perfect customer base ready to jump on self-driving cars.

            Regarding the EU, I guess I just disagree. 🙂 But it is true that for something like cars the stakeholders might be a bit less interested in seeing this happen than with regard to something like vacuum cleaners.

          • Ok, now I get it regarding the trolley problem. I agree with you :). Cambio: awesome. Really nice that such services are getting popular! It’s a very good preparation for the arrival of the self-driving car (a religious event to some? 😀 ).

            Can you elaborate regarding the EU and why you disagree? I have not read too much good press on the EU lately and could use a recalibration of opinion. What is it with vacuum cleaners? I remember one very good thing done by the EU which is enforcing universal chargers for some devices, although Apple couldn’t care less about it.

          • I’m not saying the EU is perfect, but in matters like consumer protection (whether it’s net neutrality, migration policy or appliances) I’m of the opinion that it tends to do better than the national governments.

            Regarding vacuum cleaners, you can find an oddly negative spin on the thing here. The press loves to paint any kind of EU regulation as negative, even when it was drafted in coordination with European manufacturers to protect consumers against something like low-quality noisy (high Watt) but useless (low sucking power) Chinese vacuum cleaners.

            Another random aspect is that that the word “organic” doesn’t quite mean what you expect it to mean in the US, while it pretty much does in the EU. See, e.g., this list of American allowed synthetic substances. That list looks far more worrisome to me than its EU equivalent in, e.g., annex I and II of the relevant regulations (p. 34-37). A more easily digestible summary of EU rules can be found here. Of course, that doesn’t change anything about the environmental impact of shipping fresh produce over from far-away places.

            Compared to national governments within the EU, compared to similar entities like the US (or other places like Brazil, India or China), the EU isn’t half bad. That sounds damning by faint praise, but I’m inclined to put it the other way around: the EU is pretty decent, even if it can be a bit slow.

          • Yeah, I agree that the EU has done some great things to consumer protection. I already mentioned the example with the chargers. The tone of the article with the vacuum cleaners is hilarious. I think I now know why the Brexit happened :D.

            Regarding net neutrality, I did read that EU rules might allow for some loopholes that the USA’s FCC “recommendations” do not allow (although I’m a bit sketchy if the FCC’s recommendations are actually applied). Also, the thing I read about the EU was in an old article from Tom’s Hardware and since it’s single source/single read, I might have misunderstood or the writer might have been wrong.

            Organic agriculture will definitely suffer if the TTIP is signed, according to all the things I’ve read so far online. Not good.

            Totally not saying the EU is bad, but saying the EU has been getting worse / lazy and that the bureaucratic apparatus is bulging to worrying extents. Let me put it like this: the decisional power PER capita has decreased. I suppose this is also due to an exponential curve in implementing utopian values into immature societies?

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