Should Cars Drive Themselves?

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah College

It was around 10 pm on a Sunday evening in March. Elaine Herzberg was walking her bike across N. Mill Avenue in Tempe, AZ, when a Volvo XC90 SUV traveling 40 mph struck and killed her. Tragically, about 6,000 pedestrians a year become traffic fatalities. Herzberg’s death, however, was different. She was the first pedestrian killed by a self-driving car.

While driverless vehicles have been the subjects of dreams and experiments for almost a century, truly autonomous vehicles have been reality for only about a decade. Google began its Waymo self-driving car program in 2009. By 2012, its driverless vehicles had logged over 300,000 miles. In 2015 came the “world’s first fully self-driving ride on public roads,” which truly opened the door for autonomous vehicle accidents.

The first death due to an autonomous car occurred in 2017 when a 40-year-old Tesla driver, who was using the car’s “Autopilot” driver-assist system, crashed into a large truck that turned in front of it. Investigators found that the system failed to distinguish the white truck from the bright sky.

More recently, in March 2018, a 38-year-old man died near Mountain View, CA when his Tesla Model X hit a concrete barrier. The driver was also using the car’s Autopilot system, which “allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel for extended periods under certain conditions.” Similar to the other Tesla crash, the system apparently failed to identify the divider. Two other vehicles also were involved in the accident.

Such tragedies may make us ask: Should cars operate on their own? Driving is a complicated activity that requires sharp mental and physical skills, as well as strong intuition, i.e., a clear sense of how to react, often in an instant. Artificial intelligence and other ‘smart’ technology have gotten very good, but can we really trust computer code and CPUs to protect people from a complex collection of fast-moving metal? Is it safe to hand over our keys to the cars themselves?

According to Business Insider, by the year 2020 there will be more than 10 million self-driving cars on U.S. roads. That’s a significant number of vehicles making their own way, and a good guess is that number will continue to grow. In fact, some predict that by 2030, one out of every four vehicles will be self-driving.

What’s driving the success of self-driving vehicles? Compared to conventional cars, autonomous ones have several advantages, for instance:

  • More efficient operation, including optimized braking and accelerating
  • Lower emissions due to better driving and possibly fewer vehicles
  • More self-time: people can potentially do other things while they ride

There also are millions of people who can’t drive cars for various reasons including physical and cognitive limitations. For such individuals, a self-driving car may be more than a simple convenience; it can be a life-changing tool.

But what about safety? Surely none of these benefits is worth putting more lives at risk of auto accidents. That would be true, except that greater safety is actually an advantage of autonomous cars. According to BI Intelligence: “The biggest benefits of self-driving cars are that they will help to make roads safer and people’s lives easier.”

Business Insider cites a KPMG estimate that in the United Kingdom alone, self-driving cars will save 2,500 lives over a period of about 16 years. In the United States, autonomous vehicles could prevent 300,000 traffic fatalities per decade.

Such statistics may be hard to believe in light of the recent tragic headlines that prefaced this piece. There are, however, two important points to consider when assessing autonomous vehicle safety:

1. Self-driving cars are still in their infancy. They’ve only been tested on real roads for a few years. The technology that powers them will keep getting better and as improvements are made, the vehicles will become even safer.

2. In most cases, technology does things much more efficiently and effectively than humans do. Take, for instance, automated food production. Machines make every Oreo, can of Coke, and Reese’s Cup virtually identical to the last one. If we had to produce such items by hand, most of us would be lucky to make any two look similar. Of course, driving occurs in a more open and unpredictable environment, but similar accuracy and reliability have already been applied to autonomous cars, with more advancements to come.

It’s heartbreaking when lives are lost, especially due to accidents. As such, it’s wise to be cautious with new and potentially dangerous technology that’s still being refined. Although a few very unfortunate accidents have understandably garnered media attention, self-driving cars still promise to make our highways safer. Those developing these vehicles responsibly are on the right side of the road, driving forward with “Mindful Marketing.”


About the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is an ethicist, a Professor of Marketing at Messiah College, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder, which aims to encourage ethical marketing. Before entering higher education, he worked as a corporate sales analyst for a national broadcasting company and as a partner in a specialty advertising firm. His writing has been published in Forbes, Entrepreneur, Marketing News, and Business Insider.