Google’s self-driving car was recently stopped for a potential traffic violation, leading to interesting ethical questions.
When Facebook user Zandr Milewski took a picture of one of Google’s self-driving cars getting stopped by a police officer last week, it went viral.
Apparently, the car was pulled over for driving too slowly rather than for any reckless behavior. According to California law, these cars can only drive on roadways with speed limits of 35 mph or less, which was the case in this picture.
A representative from Google defended their car saying: “Driving too slowly? Bet humans don’t get pulled over for that too often. We’ve capped the speed of our prototype vehicles at 25 mph [40 kmh] for safety reasons. We want them to feel friendly and approachable, rather than zooming scarily through neighborhood streets.”
The car did not get a ticket because it was technically following the rules of the road, but this situation does lead to interesting ethical questions. Who is responsible for a self-driving car and its actions? If it causes an accident, is the company or the “driver” to blame? Should a “driver” have to step in if out-of-the-ordinary action is called for?
A study conducted earlier this year looked into this type of decision. Should a car crash itself and potentially injure or even kill its “driver” if that means saving a greater number of other people that it might have collided with? Would people buy cars that are programmed to disregard their lives if necessary to minimize the death toll?
Even self-driving cars have to have a human “driver” in them. However, the idea is that in the future, passengers won’t have to pay attention to what the car is doing. Marcus Rothoff, Volvo's autonomous driving program director says drivers must "trust the system because if you don't trust it you cannot use this [spare] time in a good way." You can’t read, text or otherwise take advantage of not having to drive if your eyes are glued to the road anyways.
Google sees their cars as helping the elderly, the visually impaired, or others with physical limitations that would normally stop them from driving regain or retain their independence.
Google reports that their cars are often stopped by police officers who simply want to know more about the funny looking vehicles. They boast about 1.2 million miles of ticketless driving — and that didn’t end with the situation in this picture.