Saturday, May 10, 2008

Ethics of the Smart Car

The relationship between drivers and their cars has always been a complex one, fraught with emotional and moral overtones. Maybe that was why some television writers with more enthusiasm than judgment came up with the concept of "My Mother the Car." I'm old enough to remember watching that show, which aired on U. S. television back in 1965. The basic idea was that this guy buys an antique car, only to discover that somehow his deceased mother's spirit has taken up residence in it. The radio dial flashed whenever she spoke to him, I guess so TV viewers could tell that it really was the car and not some hallucinogen-inspired inner voice. The show lasted only one season and is remembered, if at all, for being one of the worst TV series of all time. But if Prof. Clifford Nass of Stanford University has his way, we all may be talking with our cars in the future—and the cars may talk back in tones to match our emotions.

A recent Wired article profiled Prof. Nass's research on the future of the human-automobile interface, and how smart cars may be used. Smart in what sense? Well, with current GPS (global positioning system) technology and computer power, coupled with broadband wireless networks that will be ubiquitous soon, you can imagine driving down the street and saying to your car, "Hey, I'd like a pizza. Any good places within a couple of blocks?" Advertisers and automakers would like your car to reply, "Well, there's Gino's in the next block and Papa's one block over—they're having a lunch special today. What shall it be?"

Of course, the same smarts that lets your car give you dining advice will also empower it to remember how you drive. Auto insurance companies currently give discounts to good drivers and raise rates on poor ones, but the quality of your driving is determined mainly by very coarse measures: the number of accidents and traffic violations. Suppose every week your insurer could download and process (by software, of course) hundreds of details about how you drive: how fast you pulled out after a light changed, whether you were speeding and by how much, and whether you ran red lights without getting caught. Most of the technology's there, it's just a matter of developing it.

Some people would think this amounts to turning one's private car into a spy. The matter gets even more complex if we move to cars which partially or totally take over many of the functions of driving. (See my column "The Human Side of Automated Driving" Dec. 10, 2007). Clearly, if you take your hands completely away from the controls and let the car do everything, your responsibility for accidents that ensue is limited, if not absent entirely. But many plans for computer-assisted driving don't go that far. Nass imagines a heavy-footed driver negotiating with his car for permission to step on the gas after a stop light changes. "Aw, c'mon, just this once?" "No, you're wasting gas, and at five dollars a gallon!" Nass says that changing the car's tone of voice to match the driver's mood may help the situation, but I'm not so sure.

Right after it was economically feasible to put computer-generated voices in cars, some time in the early 1990s, a few manufacturers experimented with it. The idea proved to be almost universally unpopular, as the mechanical female tone reminded everybody of their worst nagging nightmares of school librarians and mothers (there it is again), and the feature disappeared in a model year or so.

Where is engineering ethics in all this? The first responsibility of engineers who are working on these things is to make sure they don't make driving more dangerous. Of course, that doesn't mean things can't ever go wrong occasionally, but tests will have to show a general improvement in safety before new features can be adopted. As for insurance companies and driving information, there is a public-policy aspect which has not been debated yet. It's the same kind of question that arises when health insurers want to use a person's genetic information to restrict health coverage, except in that case you can't help what genes you were born with, but you presumably have some control over how you drive. But should a taxi driver in New York pay higher rates than the legendary little old lady from Pasadena who only drives to church on Sundays? These are questions that involve technology as well as issues of fairness, economics, and what insurers like to call "moral hazard"—that is, the idea that you should not be exempt from all the consequences of your own voluntary bad behavior.

For my part, I'll be content to drive my old, dumb cars (dumb in two senses) until the wheels fall off. And maybe by then I can buy a car named James and commute by saying, "Home, James," and just enjoy the scenery while the car worries about the congestion on IH-35.

A Note To Readers

For the next two to four weeks I will be pursuing some research in a rather remote location where Internet access is not as reliable as it could be. So I apologize in advance for any delays in my weekly postings, which I will try to keep current as much as possible. For more information about the subject of my research, see

Sources: The Wired article appeared on May 9, 2008 at And Wikipedia has an article that will tell you more than you will ever need to know about the show "My Mother the Car."

1 comment:

  1. I came across your blog while researching on-line ethics courses for my company. Do you have any suggestions of good on-line ethics courses for civil engineers?