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Year 8 Debate: Autonomous cars are not the future

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Earlier in the academic Year, a team of Year 8s competed in the inaugural Rotary Youth Debates Competition. Competing in the Intermediate section of the competition, they chose to research and debate whether ‘Autonomous Cars are the Future’.

Will makes some interesting points and I agree with his definition of autonomous cars.  I will open my argument, however, with some points of rebuttal. Will assures us that autonomous cars will improve road safety. According to a recent article in New Scientist, today’s power of AI (artificial intelligence) which Will has been so keen to tell us drives the future of autonomous cars is – and I quote: “equivalent to the brain of an earthworm”. Would you want a school bus driving your kids to school with the intelligence of an earth worm at the wheel? Will states that autonomous cars are the future. However, he failed to highlight the bare truth that programmers can’t prepare a car for the unexpected. No algorithm can prepare for every eventuality. Even though it’s rare: these out of the blue things do happen every day: a sudden rush of rain; a bolt of lightning or a car nearby blows a tyre. How will the car know what to do when the inevitable unexpected happens? Autonomous cars might be okay in “normal” conditions but it’s when the unexpected happens things can go very wrong; and they have. The very nature of being human equips us better to deal with the unexpected.

Will glossed over the worrying fact that, in 2018 an Uber autonomous car hit and killed a woman due to software problems. The human override was watching TV and not paying attention. People put too much trust in these cars when they aren’t perfect. A Tesla driver was recently pulled over in the UK for sitting in the passenger’s seat on a motorway. Thankfully, in this circumstance no one was injured. Humans have the intelligence to know what to do, or make a judgment when the abnormal things happen. Computers do not.

He states that his only question is how long will it take for autonomous cars to completely abolish human driving. The stark reality of the world is that they never will. The cost of all of these sensors, cameras, radars and AI is high and prohibitive. Not all people will have the money to have AI in their cars. There are people in the world who can’t even afford the cost of food and clothes or even a normal car, let alone an autonomous one.

It is my belief that, autonomous vehicles are not the future. In the space allowed I cannot possibly cover every argument countering the motion: so I will concentrate on three inter-related concerns. Firstly security, secondly moral decisions (The trolley problem – which Will has already referred to) and finally: insurance.

According to cyber security specialists, every 39 seconds a computer is hacked into. These autonomous cars are vulnerable to these security attacks; after all they are only computers. Would you like to be in an autonomous vehicle travelling down a motorway at 70 mph when someone decides to hack into your car and play with your brakes? The worst part is, this isn’t the worst thing that could happen.

This brings me neatly on to my second point: Computers cannot make moral decisions, such as valuing one life over another. For example, choosing to crash into a wall, sacrificing the passengers of the vehicle in order to save a pedestrian or child. This is the famous trolley problem which philosophers have struggled with for many years. It is now very real with the invention of autonomous cars. The problem is, how do you program a computer to make moral decisions in a split second? We should not be giving the power of life and death to machines.

This underpins my third point: that of insurance and liability. When two cars have an accident, someone is at fault and someone must pay for the damage and or injury done to the other party. If an autonomous car has an accident, then who must pay? The car manufacturer, the programmer or the passenger? How do you get insurance for these cars if liability is near impossible to determine? This is another factor of why autonomous cars will not be the future.

In synopsis, there are too many factors that need to be considered when making and programing these vehicles, therefore until these flaws and problems and until the AI in these cars is as good as a human brain, which experts agree is a very way long way off and probably never, I do not believe that autonomous cars will be the future.

Click here to read Will's argument for Autonomous cars.