TOPIC GUIDE: Future of driving

"All vehicles should be automated"

PUBLISHED: 10 Jun 2016

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

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In 2010 technology giant Google announced its Self-Driving Car project to “make driving safer, more enjoyable and more efficient.” [Ref: Google] Google ask us to imagine a point where “Deaths from traffic accidents—over 1.2 million worldwide every year—could be reduced dramatically, especially since 94% of accidents in the U.S. involve human error.” [Ref: Google] The idea of ‘automated vehicles’ isn’t a new one [Ref: Computer History Museum], but the advent of Google’s recent project has caused both excitement and concern, and raises questions about responsibility, the future of driving and human autonomy. Supporters of the new technology argue that: “The strongest case for self-driving cars is safety” [Ref: Guardian], although critics are concerned that self-driving cars “introduce a whole new category of road user…that entirely lacks an understanding that all those road users share” [Ref: Slate], and question how this new automated technology will integrate into a human-controlled, human-centred environment. As well as this, some commentators ask whether automation will end our love of driving altogether, as we seem to have reached “peak car” because of, “the possibility that both car ownership and vehicle-kilometres driven may be reaching saturation in developed countries—or even be on the wane” [Ref: Economist]. In other quarters, there is anxiety about whether we are too quick to embrace automation, at the expense of human pleasure and control: “The self-driving car will only change our lives for the worst” because of what “it’ll take away from future generations. The car gives many of us our first taste of true freedom. Countless weekends can be spent just driving, with no particular destination in mind. Often, after getting hopelessly lost, new places are found, and returned to throughout our lives. This is only possible because we’re in complete control.” [Ref: Digital Trends] So is the future of driving an automated one, or is that still a futuristic dream? What are the pros and cons of this new technology, and how might it effect humankind’s relationship to machine?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Safety first
One of the key motivations developers give for a move to automated cars is improving road safety. Cars that are able to anticipate risky situations and avoid them will, it is argued, reduce road-traffic accidents, “helping to make the roads safer for everyone.” [Ref: Telegraph] The small fleet of Google automated cars (both commercial makes and Google’s own prototype) have driven over a million miles within California since 2009 [Ref: Telegraph], but in February this year one of their vehicles had an accident and collided with a public transport bus [Ref: Financial Times]. Google admitted that the computer had made an “incorrect assumption about where [the bus] would go”, and that the crash would not be the last [Ref: Daily Mail]. That incident is considered an important moment in the development of the technology, not only because it’s the first one where the technology has been deemed to bear ‘some responsibility’ for the incident [Ref: Daily Mail], but because it highlights the concerns of some about the safety of driverless cars more broadly. Whilst future automated vehicles might be able to safely “navigate roads, they don’t think like humans”, and some question whether automated cars can really be safe in an environment where they need to interact with humans, and as such, “cope with the uncertainty and complexity of human behaviour.” [Ref: Popular Mechanics] However, despite this, others call for perspective on the Google car crash, and ask us to consider “the number of crashes that occurred on the same day that were the result of human behaviour.” [Ref: BBC News] In addition, some worry that computer-controlled cars might be ‘trollable’ – falsely led into reacting in a particular way for nefarious or accidental reasons – because: “As self-driving cars increase in complexity (and they are among the most complex computer systems ever made)…the number of ways they can fail will increase”, as even the most sophisticated AI systems don’t possess our “uniquely human intelligence” [Ref: Slate].

Man vs Machine
For writer and journalist Carl Franzen, “the biggest issue with self-driving cars lies in their inability to make moral and ethical decisions for which human drivers have so far been almost entirely responsible. Would-be autonomous carmakers might be uncomfortable programming such choices into their systems, but human drivers make such momentous split-second decisions with regularity.” [Ref: Popular Mechanics] The development of artificial intelligence (AI), including in transport, has led some to consider ethical and moral questions about introducing this new technology into our lives. Human drivers make constant judgements – practical and moral – especially about the safety of ourselves and those around us, but will computers be programmed to do the same, and if so what decisions will their algorithms make? “Here is the nature of the dilemma. Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. One day, while you are driving along, an unfortunate set of events causes the car to head toward a crowd of 10 people crossing the road. It cannot stop in time but it can avoid killing 10 people by steering into a wall. However, this collision would kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do?”[Ref: MIT Technology Review] Others contest that: “When machines take over, the work required of the human is typically not removed”, but rather our interaction with cars changes, and instead we will be a “monitor—one who constantly watches to detect and correct technology failures”. Ultimately, they argue that driving will become “a cooperative effort between humans and technology—one where the human plays a vital, active role in systems that optimize the interaction between the driver and the technology” [Ref: Newsweek]. There is also the question of responsibility, and if we can hold a machine to account in the event of accidents. Some argue that even if the law and ethics of automated vehicles are resolved: “Insurers still need to make confident judgments about risk, and this will be very difficult.” [Ref: Atlantic]

The future of driving
In parts of the world where the car has been prominent in our lives and cultures over the past half century, we are driving less, due to improvements in public transport and increased city-centre living, and some point out that, “in the rich world the car’s previously inexorable rise is stalling.” [Ref: Economist] Those who believe we have a duty to move to automation to reduce road-deaths, argue that despite peoples “illusion of an inalienable right” to drive, “passing laws [to move to automation] that protect us from harm is a good idea, even if some liberty is lost as a result.” [Ref: Fusion] But despite the obvious advantages of road safety, might the driverless-car be a “dispiriting prospect” which deprives us of our autonomy and turns the freedom of travel into something “joyless” [Ref: Guardian]? Google and other developers point to the prospect of driving being opened up to everyone, and changing how we use that time spent in a car, “everyone could get around easily and safely, regardless of their ability to drive. Ageing or visually impaired loved ones wouldn’t have to give up their independence. Time spent commuting could be time spent doing what you want to do.” [Ref: Google] So is a move to automation an unquestionable good for society? Will machines be granted ‘personhood’ in the future [Ref: Atlantic], and if so, do humans risk losing their sense of autonomy and control?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Autonomous and driverless cars case study

Institution of Mechanical Engineers 10 February 2016

Where to? A history of autonomous vehicles

Computer History Museum 2016


A future of self-driving cars? We’re ready now

Stephen Shankland Cnet 23 January 2016

Safety first: the future of driving

Tim Gibson Telegraph 15 January 2016

Driving should be illegal

Kevon Roose Fusion 5 October 2015


The big question about driverless cars no one seems able to answer

Brian Fung Washington Post 17 February 2016

Why self-driving cars aren’t ready to share the road with humans

Carl Franzen Popular Mechanics 5 February 2015

Driverless cars will ruin the thrill of driving

Laura Barton Guardian 31 July 2014


Why self-driving cars must be programmed to kill

MIT Technology Review 22 October 2015

The moral challenges of driverless cars

Keith Kirkpatrick Communications 2015

Seeing the back of the car

Economist 22 September 2012


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Can self-driving cars cope with illogical humans?

Mark Prig Daily Mail 14 March 2016

Driverless cars pose worrying questions of life and death

Andy Sharman Financial Times 20 January 2016

Humans are slamming into driverless cars and exposing a key flaw

Keith Naughton Bloomberg 8 December 2015

Five big tests that driverless cars will have to pass

James Titcomb Telegraph 15 November 2015

When humans and robots share the roads

Adrienne Lafrance Atlantic 9 October 2015

Future proofing: Mobility

BBC Radio 4 26 September 2015

The future of driving, in one provocative chart

Alexander C. Kauffman Huffington Post 4 August 2015

The driverless car debate: how safe are autonomous vehicles?

Lauren Keating Tech Times 28 July 2015

Will Google’s autonomous cars ruin driving, or liberate us from it?

Jeffrey Van Camp Digital Trends 31 May 2014

Geoengineering is not a solution for climate change anymore

David Suzuki Huffington Post 19 March 2014

The ethics of autonomous cars

Patrick Lin Atlantic 8 October 2013

The trollable self-driving car

Samuel English Anthony Slate 2012

Self-driving pods

Transport Systems Catapult


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.


Uber and out: is there a future for driving?

Battle of Ideas 17 October 2015

Future proofing: Mobility

BBC Radio 4 26 September 2015

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