Soon it will be easier for self-driving cars to hide in plain sight. The surface-mounted lidar sensors that currently identify many of them are likely to get smaller. Mercedes cars with the new partially automated Drive Pilot system, which carries lidar sensors behind the car’s front grille, are virtually indistinguishable from normal human-operated vehicles.
Is this a good thing? As part of our Drless Futures project at University College London, my colleagues and I recently completed the largest and most comprehensive survey of citizens’ attitudes to self-driving vehicles and the rules of the road. One of the questions we decided to ask, after conducting more than 50 in-depth interviews with experts, was whether self-driving cars should be classified. The consensus from our sample of 4,800 British citizens is clear: 87% agreed with the statement “It should be clear to other road users whether the car is driving by itself” (only 4% disagreed, the rest unsure).
We sent the same survey to a smaller group of experts. They were not convinced: 44% agreed and 28% disagreed that the vehicle’s condition should be declared. The question is not clear. There are valid arguments on both sides.
We can say that, in principle, humans should know when to interact with bots. This was the argument put forward in 2017, in a report commissioned by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. “Robots are artifacts,” she said. “They should not be designed in a deceptive way to exploit vulnerable users; rather, the nature of their machine should be transparent.” If self-driving cars are truly being tested on public roads, other road users can be considered subjects of that experience and should give something like informed consent. Another argument in favor of branding, this practical argument, is that – as with a car operated by a student driver – it is safer to give a wide berth to a vehicle that may not behave like that driven by an experienced human.
There are arguments against labeling, too. The poster can be seen as a waiver of the responsibilities of the creators, which means that others must acknowledge and accommodate the self-driving car. It could be argued that a new label, without a clear shared sense of the limits of technology, would only add confusion to avenues already riddled with distractions.
From a scientific perspective, the nomenclature also influences data collection. If a self-driving car is learning to drive and others know it and behave differently, it could distort the data it collects. Something similar seems to be on the mind of a Volvo executive who told a reporter in 2016 that “just to be on the safe side” the company would be using unmarked cars for its proposed self-driving experience on UK roads. “I’m sure people would defy them if they were marked by really harsh braking in front of a self-driving car or putting themselves in the road,” he said.
In general, the arguments for labeling, at least in the short term, are more compelling. This debate is about more than just self-driving cars. It goes to the heart of the question of how to organize new technologies. Developers of emerging technologies, who often portray them as disruptive and world-changing at first, tend to portray them as mere incremental, unproblematic technologies once regulators knock. But new technologies do not fit the world as it is. They reshape worlds. If we want to realize its benefits and make good decisions about its risks, we need to be honest about it.
To better understand and manage the deployment of self-driving cars, we need to dispel the myth that computers will drive just like humans, but better. Management professor Ajay Agrawal, for example, has argued that self-driving cars do what drivers do, but more efficiently: “Humans have data that comes through sensors — cameras on our faces and microphones on the sides of our heads — and the data comes in, and we process the data with the monkeys’ brains. Then we take action and our actions are very limited: We can turn left, we can turn right, we can brake, we can accelerate.”