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The Case Against Self-Driving Cars

Declan Gunn

February 24th, 2019

Imagine you’re standing at the intersection of two train tracks. On the first track, four people are tied down and will be killed should the train run them over. On the second, only one person is tied down. A train is swiftly approaching this intersection. With its current trajectory, it will barrel down the first track and kill four people. Standing at the tracks’ junction, you have a decision to make: you can do nothing and allow the train to kill these four people, or you can pull the lever you’ve discovered next to you. This will reroute the train to the second track, killing only one person.


This ethical dilemma, invented by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and later popularized by another philosopher, Judith Jarvis Johnson, is known as the Trolley Problem. At first glance it appears to be a stuffy question of the role of agency in tragedy; nothing more. But this question has increasingly important ramifications in the modern day. With the advent of self-driving cars (however rudimentary their systems), developers have been asked a similar question: if your car is hurtling into an accident, should it stay on course to kill several people or swerve out of the way and kill only one? Or perhaps most realistically, will a self-driving car prioritize the life of a passenger or a pedestrian?


Numerous studies have explored what people from cultures around the world believe is the correct course of action in this scenario -- a 2014 study from MIT that surveyed over 40 million people from around the world found vastly different answers from people of varying geographic locations, cultures, and economic backgrounds. But ultimately, the decisions on how any given self driving car is going to act won’t be based on the feedback of millions. It will be decided by just a few AI coders; coders with their own birthplaces, cultures, social statuses, and biases. By saying, “Yes, we want self-driving cars,” our society is inevitably saying, “Yes, we want several Silicon Valley developers to be making decisions for us about who lives and who dies on the road.”


Realistically, we can predict whose life developers will choose. As multi-billion dollar companies, developers are driven by profit above all else. Knowing that everyday citizens won’t buy a car that puts pedestrian’s life above their own, the inner mantra of self-driving cars will likely not be, “Protect as many people as possible.” In order to maximize profit, it will be, “Protect the passenger at all costs.” Do we really want a world where the lives of those rich enough to afford self-driving vehicles are protected above all others’? Supporting the creation of self-driving cars means supporting ethical systems that play into preexisting classist dynamics between the world’s richest and poorest citizens.


This dynamic is, admittedly, present in the modern day -- with airbags, seat belts, and reinforced hulls, even human-driven cars protect passengers more than pedestrians. Despite this, people of all economic classes own human-driven cars with these protections, so no one group of people is being protected more. But because the buyers and passengers of self-driving cars will be rich people, their lives will be prioritized over all others on the road. Considering this, my point is not that protections for a car's passengers are a bad thing; it's that protections for only rich passengers are bad. People should be protected equally, regardless of their economic standing.


However, even if the world were able to agree on a process for resolving these new ethical dilemmas, there is another pressing issue that arises: the economic impact that self-driving vehicles will have on the world market. In the United States alone, there are 4 million driver jobs as of 2014. Truck drivers, making up 3.1 million jobs in this market, would be the first to go: the relative ease with which trucks navigate in comparison to that of taxis or buses means that jobs driving trucks will be ripe for the plucking. A 2017 study by Goldman Sachs, researching this very issue, predicts job losses of around 300,000 per year to the growing autonomous vehicle industry.


Furthermore, this is quite different from other technological innovations the world has seen in the past. Many inventions retain economic equilibrium by creating as many new jobs as they do making old ones irrelevant. Take film, for instance: while it drew countless jobs away from the theater industry, it created countless more in the entertainment market by allowing the development of movies and television. Self-driving cars are different in that they do not create any sizable amount of new jobs. While many inventions take jobs from one market and move them into an entirely new one, automation takes jobs from a market but doesn’t output them anywhere new. Jobs disappear instead of just shifting place.


Ultimately, the majority of jobs taken from the driving industry are low-skill and thus low-wage; truck drivers make only around $0.27 per mile they drive. So not only does vehicle automation take jobs away, it takes those jobs from people who are already struggling financially. Taking into account the ethical dilemmas involved with self-driving cars, advocating on their behalf means you support two things: first, that in crashes, the lives of rich owners of self-driving cars will be prioritized over those of everyday citizens; second, that jobs will be taken away from drivers, already struggling financially.


There are definitely some positive sides to self-driving cars: not only do they make it easier and more comfortable to get around, they will likely add significantly to the profits of the companies that produce them. It’s easy to argue that this will act as a sort of monetary injection to the automotive market, which could help prevent another economic crash like the one suffered by the automotive industry between 2008 and 2010. However, much of this crash was caused by the housing market crisis of 2008 as a sort of domino effect. As such, increased profits wouldn’t necessarily safeguard against another crash of this kind.


But even if we assume that said profits would completely prevent the chance of an automotive crash ever again, it’s still not worth it. At the end of the day, this increased ease of transportation and hypothetically prevented automotive industry crash really isn’t worth the deterioration of ethical living and a broadening of the class gap. Self-driving cars, while they have their merits for those rich enough to afford them, will worsen life overall for the rest of us.


If you're interested and you'd like to read more about these issues, feel free to check out CNBC’s article, “Self-driving cars could cost America’s professional drivers up to 25,000 jobs a month, Goldman Sachs says,” (https://www.cnbc.com/2017/05/22/goldman-sachs-analysis-of-autonomous-vehicle-job-loss.html) or MIT Technology Review’s article, “Should a self-driving car kill the baby or the grandma? Depends on where you’re from,” (https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612341/a-global-ethics-study-aims-to-help-ai-solve-the-self-driving-trolley-problem/).