Dilemma: A choice between two options, especially undesirable ones.
For the 17 of you who haven’t seen the movie Frozen, Elsa perceives that she has a choice to either “Conceal, don’t feel, Don’t let them know” or as she says, “Turn my back and slam the door… and here I stand… and here I’ll stay… The cold never bothered me anyway.”
She later goes on to find out that, because of the consequences of what’s happened earlier, her past will not let her go. Her actions have frozen the kingdom she came from. Even though she wants to have her own way away from everyone else, everyone else won’t let her – because they can’t. Both her sister, and later a number of armed men come to bring her back. Eventually she is forced to return. After the movie’s climax, she learns that she can have freedom within boundaries. She can continue to offer some expression, but she cannot “let it go” and lose control of her powers. She finds out that she doesn’t actually have a dilemma between hiding and running. There is a third option – responsible use.
What does this have to do with autonomous vehicles? One of the chief complaints that I’ve heard about vehicular autonomy is an objection sounding something like “I don’t want to give up my freedom. I want to be in control.” In fact for a while in the late 1800’s, there was a similar apparent dilemma facing the nation – prohibition of vehicles on public roads, or acceptance of all the crazy drivers. As you know, a balance was found in prohibiting reckless driving, and permitting responsible driving.
So what about mandating autonomous vehicles? On its face, objecting to this seems very reasonable. We can drive now, isn’t it reasonable to refuse to give up my right to drive? Can’t we continue to have the ability to do what we want? In a more concrete statement, who are YOU to tell me that I cannot drive myself?
As a small “L” libertarian, it is my nature to recoil from dictating anyone’s actions. As a lover of humanity, I DO want what offers the most freedom for all. So lets examine the amount of freedom available to drivers with and without autonomy. Specifically, we’ll address the following three areas: speed, path, and route.
Right now, a driver must stay below a speed limit, and often within a speed range. Whether they are actually scofflaws is another question. Most drivers, if given the choice, would stay at the maximum speed allowed – that is also safe – on a given road. So, currently, most drivers are either acting outside of the bounds of the law, or safety, or at a “maximum” speed. As far as speed goes, then, there really is only one “right” speed for a car to go at on a given road at a given time. If the driver is one of the few that actually wants to go slower, society will have to choose when, where, and if that is acceptable. If it is permissible, there is no reason why the car’s occupant could not dictate a lower speed. There are currently precedents for minimum speed laws. I expect these will be reviewed regularly as autonomy becomes more prevalent. To summarize, most people only exercise their freedom to select a driving speed by exceeding the legal speed limit.
Let’s examine the freedom to select a path. By path, I mean where in the roadbed you have your car (not whether you take I80 or US66). As I travel to work, most of my drive is on single-lane roads where my freedom is limited to a couple feet on to the left or right. If there are no oncoming cars, I can go all the way to the middle line, and if there’s an oncoming car, politeness dictates that I give that car any extra room that I safely can. For a brief period of my commute, I am on a 3 lane highway. I have the freedom to select any of those lanes that I can safely get to. I’ll grant that this would be a freedom that I’d actually be giving up.
As far as Route goes, I fully expect that most people will accept the navigation systems’ recommendations. In the few cases where someone wishes to take an alternate route (“let’s see how construction on the new stadium is going”) they will be able to over ride this at ease. Not only will no freedom be given up, but there will be more than ever. How? Remember that time you meant to turn left on White St but didn’t because you couldn’t see it in time? Now you have the freedom to do that which you want to do.
A quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin is “He who gives up freedom for safety deserves neither.” This statement is, on it’s face ludicrous. I regularly offer up my freedom of movement (via a seatbelt, or acceptance of a speed limit) to gain MORE safety. There are a host of other examples of this that I will not make. Franklin’s actual quote, “Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety” is a lot more sensible. The only real freedom someone is giving up is the freedom to break the law, and the freedom to select a lane on the highway. The US court system has determined that driving is a privilege worthy of licensure, not a right, it is certainly hard to argue that anyone driving an automated car is opting to give up an essential liberty. (Please note, I’m not advocating the immediate adoption of autonomous-only roads before cost becomes a negligible issue.)
There is still the legitimate issue around control. The ability to control where one is going is a good feeling. At the cost of 1 million lives per year, I don’t think that the ability to control, without any corresponding increase in freedom, is worth paying for. I think that its apparent benefits are an expensive illusion – similar to someone jumping off of a boat because they want to be free. They may experience freedom for a bit, but it will not last.
Here’s the bottom line: at the end of the day, the only legitimate exercise of control or freedom lie within such strict bounds as to not really be freedom. The only freedom retained is to make a decision. That decision may cause another person their life if incorrectly made. Like Elsa, our dilemma is a false one. We don’t have decision between liberty and tyranny. We have the choice between the illusion of control and saving many, many lives. It’s time to give up the illusion.