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"With no one at the wheel".

Is there a red line that would be dangerous to cross in the automation of autonomous vehicles?

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Jorge Juan Gil PHOTO: Communication Service
22/10/18 17:49 Communication Service

We reproduce below the opinion article recently published in El Diario Vasco by Jorge Juan Gil, professor at Tecnun-University of Navarra and researcher at Ceit-IK4, in relation to autonomous vehicles.

"Last March saw the first fatal pedestrian accident caused by an autonomous car. Or should we call it an intelligent vehicle? Safety is a requirement for any device. The sensors installed in autonomous vehicles are designed to detect pedestrians and obstacles, even in the dark. They are always alert. They are not distracted. They do not get tired. They do not fall asleep. And an automated system is able to react much faster than us mere humans. In short, autonomous cars - at least theoretically - can be much safer than human-driven vehicles. So what's the problem?

A car is a tremendously sophisticated device, with a very high level of automation. The climate control system regulates the cabin temperature, and the ventilation systems, the engine temperature... What elements do we leave to the manual control of the driver? Basically, the speed of the vehicle and the steering. Are we willing to cede both controls to a machine or to intelligent algorithms? Today, my answer is "thank you very much, but no". We all know that objects break. Light bulbs blow. Batteries run down. And volatile memories volatilise.

Would you get into a car travelling along a motorway at 120 kilometres per hour without someone at the wheel? Really? Many trains are already fully automated. The driver is merely a supervisor. However, these vehicles run on more enclosed tracks than roads. They are usually one-way, with no possibility of overtaking. Trains do not have obstacle sensors, because this possibility is not foreseen. Lifts are also an automatic means of transport. Although the first platform lifts were manually controlled, modern lifts have evolved to the point where they are completely locked, lest someone should happen to put their hand between the doors. And couldn't that be solved with sophisticated sensors? I bring up these examples because it seems unlikely that autonomous cars will be allowed without restricting their use to a safe environment.

Would we approve of our roads becoming much more enclosed to enable automatic control of vehicles? Would their infrastructure need more complexity and maintenance costs? Would that be environmentally friendly and sustainable? In robotics, too, there are strict regulations. Industrial robots must operate within caged enclosures, where a human cannot gain access. This situation is to be changed so that people and robots can work together to carry out tasks. To achieve this goal, physical barriers must be removed, but - in return - the robots must have more perceptive capabilities of their environment (proximity and contact sensors) and, above all, operate at much lower levels of speed and force. Would we give up control of our vehicle at the cost of moving at much lower levels of speed than at present?

Some arguments in favour of autonomous cars are also worrying. Proponents claim that they would have fewer accidents than manual cars. Why is that? Because there are people who drive like crazy, drunk... In other words, we are the problem. It is true that machines are going to replace us in activities that they do better than us because they require more strength or precision, are carried out in toxic or high-risk areas or simply because they are very repetitive jobs. But we should not allow machines to replace us, because some people are irresponsible. I would rather improve education than go for substitution.

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