Chicago Objects to Driverless Cars

Engineering Ethics Blog: Chicago Objects to Driverless Cars


Chicago Objects to Driverless Cars

You know a technology’s beyond the infancy
stage when politicians start paying attention to it.  Driverless cars such as those being test-fielded by Waymo
and other firms have upset a couple of Chicago aldermen to the extent that they
have tried to enact a ban on them, saying they’re too dangerous.  In an editorial as remarkable for its
brevity as for its directness, the Chicago
claims to take the side of the future in a piece titled
“Driverless cars on the road to the future.”
According to the Sun-Times, the aldermen—Ed Burke and Anthony Beale—are worried
about jobs.  More perhaps than many
other large U. S. cities, Chicago is a working-class town, and drivers of many
kinds—cabbies, truck drivers, delivery people, airport personnel—make up a
significant number of voters.  As
such peoples’ representatives, the aldermen elected by a particular district
should take the concerns of their constituents seriously.  And if driverless cars threaten jobs,
well, trying to do something about it is within the rights of a reasonable
politician.  There’s a whiff of
hypocrisy in claiming safety concerns about a matter that’s really more about
jobs, but no more than usual in today’s political environment.
The editorial writers take the side of
Illinois’s Governor Bruce Rauner, who may sign a bill that would prohibit
Chicago and other cities from enacting a ban on driverless cars.  Conflicts between municipalities and
state governments seem to be cropping up more frequently these days, typically
with big cities taking more progressive positions and getting reined in by more
conservative state legislatures and governors (Rauner is a Republican). 
If driverless cars become a significant
percentage of cars on the road, that will mark one of the biggest technological
changes in transportation since the introduction of the automobile.  We’ve been told that it will come with
tremendous advantages compared to today’s status quo:  lower accident rates, less traffic congestion, and the
freedom to use your commute time for things other than steering and using the
brake pedal a lot.  And probably
the most visible downside is what it will do to the job market for paid
drivers.  Every car on the road
that used to need a driver but doesn’t anymore represents a potential lower- to
middle-class job that becomes history. 
The basis on which the editorial favors
driverless cars is what historians call the Whig theory of history.  This is the idea that the farther back
you go, the worse things were, and that human history is an unbroken series of
triumphs over ignorance and primitive ways that will eventually issue in
Paradise on earth.  After the
horrors of the twentieth century (World War II, to name one), anyone who gives
the matter a moment’s thought will begin to see holes in the Whig theory.  But it’s been around so long that it
has become a kind of cliché idea that some writers spout automatically. 
The editorial writers claim that Chicago
will become a “cow town” if it doesn’t accept driverless cars, and
they cite NASA’s use of computers to get a man to the moon as an example of how
computerized transportation is a good idea.  Well, these are not so much arguments as they are assertions
and bad analogies.  The editorial
winds up by saying no one banned Model Ts to protect jobs for blacksmiths, and
“Old occupations may fade, but new ones come along.”  The overall thrust of the article is
basically to say, “Deal with it, and don’t do something stupid that will
make Chicago look like some kind of backward provincial hick town.”
Beneath this rather trivial discussion are
a number of serious questions. 
What role should government play in the deployment of driverless
cars?  Should their regulation be
at a local, regional, state, or national level, or some combination of the preceding?  What, if anything, should be done to
protect the jobs of people whose livelihood is threatened by the advent of
driverless cars?  How can we get
from the level of automotive safety we have now to a better one by implementing
driverless cars, without running into some emergent large-number problem that
could cause a significant increase in serious accidents, injuries, and
deaths?  Almost none of these
questions were addressed by the editorial writers, but if they were operating
under a house rule that prohibits editorials of much more than 300 words, well,
there’s not a lot you can say in 300 words. 
By this point you may have the impression
that I favor a ban on driverless cars. 
I don’t favor a ban, and I don’t favor a law against a ban.  What I favor is a serious, in-depth
discussion of the questions regarding driverless cars, and at least in the case
of this editorial by one of the nation’s major newspapers in a city of 2.7
million people, I don’t see signs of that. 
There are many signs that the elusive thing
called unity is on the decline in this country.  The degree to which citizens trust government to do the
right thing has fallen precipitously compared to where it was several decades
ago.  And people don’t trust a system
that they don’t understand or feel that they cannot influence when it allows or
encourages things that can cause them harm. 
Perhaps the two Chicago aldermen responded
to their constituents in the wrong way, but at least they saw a genuine threat
to jobs and went about trying to do something about it in response.  Back when the average person could read
things that required more than one step of logic to understand, there were
typically a few local newspapers to read in any major city, two or three TV and
radio networks, and maybe the newsreel at the movie house.  That was it, as far as finding out what
was going on in the world, and as a result, those who operated the media took
care to use it with a reasonable degree of responsibility, and something like
rational debate about great public matters of interest could be carried on.
But now, the media have fractured into a
million tweets, Instagrams, and other detritus of electronic communications,
most of which are too short to convey anything more than a burst of emotion.  The Chicago paper’s editorial is only
300 words long because they probably know from experience that people won’t
read 1000-word editorials anymore, if they read anything at all.  And talking heads in video clips are
pushing out text-based media of all kinds anyway.
I hope we as a nation, and the city of
Chicago in particular, both reach a beneficial accommodation to the advent of
driverless vehicles that will benefit most people while injuring as few as
possible.  But to get there in a
way that makes people feel included, the discussion will have to be at a higher
level than the Sun-Times has set for



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