BMW, a company that prides itself on building “the ultimate driving machine,” plans to start producing fully autonomous vehicles by 2021 for ridesharing programs. Think of it as Uber for people who don’t like people.
This is a surprising move, given that the company has said essentially nothing about technology that everyone from Google to General Motors to Tesla is racing to develop. And it marks a radical departure from the slow-and-steady approach of the mainstream automakers, who see the technology rolling out slowly over the next two decades.
Still, ze Germans see themselves surging ahead by relying upon help from Intel and Mobileye, an Israeli firm that dominates the market for the cameras that are key to active safety features like collision warning and lane-keeping. The trio aims to standardize self-driving technology. “It is the only way to make this crucial next step a reality,” Ziv Aviram, co-founder and CEO of Mobileye, said in a statement.
Friday’s announcement was long on promises and short on details. There’s no word on where BMW will deploy the cars, which ridesharing platform it will work with, or what role Intel plays in the partnership. And BMW is well behind the competition, which is led by Google. The company’s fleet of two dozen or so fully autonomous vehicles logs 10,000 to 15,000 miles each week and has covered 1.3 million miles in all.
Would you buy a driverless car that is programmed to kill you? Of course not. Ok, how about a car programmed to kill you if it’s the only way to avoid plowing into a crowd of dozens?
That’s one of the conundrums an international group of researchers put to 2,000 US residents through six online surveys. The questions varied the number of people that would be sacrificed or saved in each instance—if you want to try it for yourself, see if you’d make a good martyr here. The study, just published in the journal Science is the latest attempt to answer ethics’ classic “trolley problem”—forcing you to choose between saving one life and saving many more.
The coming age of autonomous vehicles threatens to move that problem from the textbook to the street. Say you’re driving up narrow mountain pass when you spot a group of kids standing right in front of you. There’s no time to brake, so do you veer off the road, likely to your death, or stay the course? What if your children are in the car with you? You’d make your decision in a split second, and people would likely forgive you either way—it’s an impossible choice. Not so the autonomous car, which, the thinking goes, would be programmed to handle that sort of scenario. And that means an engineer would program the car ahead of time to choose who lives and who dies.
So what kind of god do people want as a chauffeur? The study found most people think driverless should minimize the total number of deaths, even at the expense of the occupants. The respondents stuck to that utilitarian thinking, although some decisions were harder than others. “It seems that from the responses people gave us, saving their coworkers was not a priority,” says Jean-Francois Bonnefon of the Toulouse School of Economics. But overall, “do the greater good” always won, even with children in the car.
It’s a big step for the company
Uber is advancing its driverless car efforts by deploying a test vehicle in Pittsburgh over the coming weeks, the company announced Thursday.
The company’s autonomous Ford Fusion, which has been outfitted with sensors from Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, will have a human in the driver’s seat to monitor operations. The car will be used to collect mapping data in addition to testing self-driving capabilities, and will include laser scanners, radars, and high-resolution cameras.
A member of the media tests a Tesla Motors Model S car with an Autopilot system. Regulators and manufacturers are debating whether self-driving cars should have a licensed driver inside as a safety precaution. — Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The day when you’ll be chauffeured to work by your car may not be far off.
Right now, the legal groundwork is being laid to make way for the self-driving car around the nation. NPR’s Robert Siegel is talking to several key players this week about the emerging world of self-driving cars.
In the latest conversation, he spoke with Brian Soublet, deputy director and chief legal counsel for the California Department of Motor Vehicles — an agency that robotic car advocates have accused of squelching innovation before it even gets on the road.
We’re concerned about how safe the vehicles are. Could the vehicles operate in all the various weather conditions that we’re used to? Will the sensors be able to detect the changes in the road surfaces? What would happen if there was an emergency failure of the autonomous technology? What would the vehicle be able to do? Will they obey all of the traffic laws? Who would have liability exposure if there was an accident?