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Whether There Is A Need To Regulate Autonomous Vehicles At This Nascent Stage Of Its Development?

Introduction to Autonomous Vehicles

The term autonomous stands for self: governing. Therefore, an autonomous vehicle can be defined as a self: driving vehicles or even a driverless car. It is a vehicle that has a capability to drive itself with minimal or no human intervention. A self:driving car or an autonomous vehicle has sensors and algorithms (like GPS, sonar, etc.) installed which can sense the environment around and any movement in order to drive around safely. There are several levels to an autonomous vehicle. These levels are determined by the Society of Automotive Engineers as the following:
  • Level 0: there is no automation.
  • Level 1: there is shared control. It can also be termed as hands on automation.
  • Level 2: this level is called the hands:off level.
  • Level 3: eyes:off level.
  • Level 4: mind off level.
  • Level 5: Steering:wheel optional.

If vehicles such as cars, trucks, etc. are truly made autonomous it is needed for them to copy the human decision: making procedure. It is to be taken into consideration that not all decisions that are made while driving are not entirely traffic based or about following a safe path. There are ethics that are to be given importance while manufacturing the vehicles. These ethics has to be developed into algorithms that can be installed into the software of these vehicles which is a very difficult task.

Issue discussed in this following Article
The issue that has been discussed in this article is whether there is a need to regulate Autonomous vehicles at this nascent stage of its development?
In order to get to a conclusion I will be discussing different aspects of an autonomous vehicles like the ethical issues surrounding it, who is to be blamed if something goes wrong, and what steps certain countries have taken in order to curb those issues that have risen due to it.

Importance of Ethics
Firstly let us start which a situational example, let's say in the future you own an autonomous car and one day while driving that car has to make a terrible decision between swerving left and run over a kid, or swerving right and run over a man. All of this keeping in mind, if your car does not swerve in either of the directions, it hits both of them resulting in their deaths.

So, in this particular situation what must be the ethical and appropriate approach? Who decides it? And who is going to control your car when this decision has to be made? Any choice that is made in this situation is going to be incorrect. One cannot decide what has to be done just on the factor of their age. What do you think would be right decision? Maybe, you do not swerve at all and let both of them die which would stop you from discriminating on the basis of age but at the same time this would be even worse as you had a chance to save at least life and you chose not to. How does one deal with this dilemma?

Given the above example, there can be numerous amount of similar situations where making an ethical decision can be a difficult task. Sure, many might think that if such a situation rises a person can just push the breaks or the owner may just take back the control but there are several aspects connected to it. Like, in the above situation it was a rainy day and the roads are wet, now if you push the breaks you risk three lives which would include your own life.

Now, let's say you are on a highway and there are two cars ahead of you? What would you do then? Because clearly you cannot stop in the middle of a highway. At this time and age, the best autonomous car that exists fail to sense the existence of tiny objects and even little animals. This can also mean that it fails to detect the presence of several other things like potholes, rocks on the road, cats and dogs and many more. This can cause a lot of trouble like equipment failures (sensory errors, tire puncture or even deviation from the safe path).

This shows how crucial role ethics play while programming autonomous vehicles.

Trolley Problems
Trolley problem is one of the most important experiments when it comes to ethics. This involves ethical dilemma between is it ethical/appropriate to sacrifice one life to save multiple lives.
This involves a tram is on a path to kill five people down the track, but a driver has a choice that he can divert the course of the tram to another track which would kill just one person. While discussing the ethics related issues in autonomous vehicles the Trolley problem scenarios are given a special consideration. Which means while designing an autonomous vehicle it may be required to have a program or algorithm designed and installed which would make a choice whom or what to hit when a collision is unavoidable.

Status of Autonomous Vehicles in the U.K., U.S. & Germany
  • U.S.
    In the United States of America, Nevada was the first state in the world to allow autonomous vehicle on public roads. Nevada law defines autonomous vehicles as a motor vehicle that uses artificial intelligence, sensors and global positioning system coordinates to drive itself without the active intervention of a human operator.[1] The law states that the driver would not have to pay attention to the driving while the vehicle is on autopilot mode.

    Whereas in California, the law states that humans are supposed to be present while the autonomous vehicle is on autopilot just in case of emergencies and he/she has to take control over the car.
In the U.S., 29 states have successfully enacted laws with respect to the regulation of the autonomous vehicles.
  • U.K.
    In the United Kingdoms, the Heathrow Airport uses electric driverless pods for over a decade now. The U.K. is now working on building an autonomous vehicle friendly environment for public testing of these vehicles in four different cities. The Global Automotive Consumer Study in 2018 has found that nearly 49% of the people believe that self:driving or autonomous cars will be unsafe. This is way less than the percentage (73%) of people in the year 2017.

    In 2021, U.K. has been working on a legal proposal to allow self:driving automated lane keeping systems upto 37 mph just after getting very mixed reaction from the experts in 2020. This would allow drivers to take back the control during unplanned situations like weather related emergencies and road constructions.
  • Germany
    This year i.e. in 2021 July in Germany, the Federal Act Amending the Road Traffic Act and the Compulsory Insurance Act came into effect which allows the autonomous cars operate on their own without the presence of a driver in specified areas on public roads.
  • India
    The Indian Government has not reacted or made any decision regarding the Autonomous vehicle as its impact is not fully understood. Drones have been banned for this very reason and even Google is not allowed to use 'street view which would enable a user to actually see 360 degree panoramic street imagery.

Companies like Tesla, Ocado, Starsky Robotics and Otto have been working and developing of autonomous vehicles. As of 2020, Tesla cars can be classified as a Level 2 autonomous vehicle. At this level, a driver indeed needs a driver all the time in order to take control over the car in case of emergencies. Wymo was originated by Google. But as of 2016, these cars were involved in over 14 collisions and the car's software was responsible for a crash.

Therefore, it can concluded that no matter how good the programming of an algorithm is if ethics is ignored and legislations are not made in accordance to it there can be trouble when some actual tragedy occurs. For instance, if a crash happens and it occurs due to technological errors, a case can be made against the manufacturers. It is always going to be a grey area when it comes to ethics and making decisions. Therefore, it is the need of the hour for countries to frame legislations in order to regulate the manufacturing, programming and use of autonomous vehicles.

  1. (2021). Available at: accessed: 20 November 2021.

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