Car Wars: what you think about our self-driving car future

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In Car Wars, a work of speculative fiction for Deakin University, author Cory Doctorow explores the idea of a future where we surrender our bodies to self-driving cars. In this interactive piece, we asked readers to tell us how they feel about the increasingly close reality where self-driving cars are common on our roads. More than 8000 votes on seven questions revealed surprising patterns in global perspectives on the subject.

Steering towards a loss of control

As we allow our cars to make decisions for us, they will inevitably be programmed to make ethical decisions, too. Unsurprisingly, this makes many people uncomfortable. If it must be set to minimise harm, at some point, it will choose who lives and dies.

Our survey figures show people want to retain control. For example, 81.5 per cent of participants report they would be prepared to hack their self-driving car’s software, even if it meant breaking the law. But as Professor Gleb Beliakov, a Group Director of Deakin University’s Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics Research Cluster, and lecturer at Deakin’s School of Information Technology points out, this is not as innocuous as modifying the software on your PC. ‘When you modify software on your computer or smartphone, in the worst case it will crash and stop working. When you modify your self-driving car, in the worst case it will also crash – with you on board,’ Prof. Beliakov warns.

'When you modify software on your computer or smartphone, in the worst case it will crash and stop working. When you modify your self-driving car, in the worst case it will also crash – with you on board.'

Professor Gleb Beliakov,
Deakin University

Data security

An overwhelming 60.1 per cent of people agreed that ‘no one’ should have access to their self-driving car data. While 15.6 per cent said everyone should be able to see it. Prof. Beliakov says we will have to share our vehicle data for our own future safety. ‘Manufacturers should have access to the data during car crash investigations, or perhaps near misses, in order to improve the software and avoid future accidents in similar circumstances,’ he adds.

Autonomous cars develop through a process of testing and learning. They read the roads via reference to millions of data points based on a large amount of variable scenarios that other cars have experienced. Anything the car doesn’t know is a threat to the driver. For instance, the first fatality caused by a self-driving car happened when a car’s sensors failed to recognise the difference between the white colour of a truck driving next to it, and the brightness of the sky, and pulled itself into the side of the truck. Sensors like these learn and adapt to their environments. Hoarding your data could slow the technological development of critically needed safety systems, and increase risk.

Baby on board

When asked if children should be able to travel unsupervised in self-driving cars, 60.6 per cent of readers said yes, while 39.4 per cent opposed the idea. But the jury’s out on what age is acceptable – 45.3 per cent said kids aged 11 to 16 could travel alone, while 7.8 per cent suggested children under five could travel without a guardian. Prof. Bellakov reiterated the fact that as children get better at manipulating software, they might also need a licence to ride.

 

'Manufacturers should have access to the data during car crash investigations, or perhaps near misses, in order to improve the software and avoid future accidents in similar circumstances.'

Professor Gleb Beliakov,
Deakin University

 

Read all the results from our survey here:

Do you think children should be able to ride in self-driving cars unsupervised?

Yes: 60.6 per cent

No:  39.4 per cent

Would you modify the software in your self-driving car to protect yourself, even if it was against the law?

Yes:   81.5 per cent

No:   18.5 per cent

Can self-driving cars and ‘dumb’ cars co-exist on the roads?

Yes:  71.8 per cent

No: 28.2 per cent

Who should have the right to access your driving data?

No one:  60.1 per cent

Governments:  9.1 per cent

Parents:   5 per cent

Manufacturers:   10.1 per cent

Everyone: 15.6 per cent

How much would you trust a self-driving car from the factory?

Not at all: 14.4 per cent

It’s software, anything can happen:  36.3 per cent

Unsure, depends on the way the software is configured:  20.5 per cent

Might trust it if there is proof that the software is tamperproof: 21.9 per cent

Completely: 6.9 per cent

How much control should owners have over the software in their self-driving cars?

None:   4.8 per cent

Minimal control (skinning of the interface):  10.4 per cent

Selective control (ability to tweak selective controls):  16.6 per cent

Partial control (ability to change specifications without permission) 27.5 per cent

Total control:  40.6 per cent

At what age should children be able to ride alone?

Under 5:  7.8 per cent

Age 6 -10:  9.9 per cent

Age 11-16:  45.3 per cent

Not at all:  37.1 per cent

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Professor Gleb Beliakov
Professor Gleb Beliakov

School of Information Technology, Deakin University
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