Introduction the first car to feature cruise


With the age of autonomous vehicles edging ever closer,
is there cause for concern about the implications that it could bring to our
society, or will it have a positive effect on the way we live today? According
to IT glossaries, an autonomous vehicle “can drive itself from a starting point
to a predetermined destination in autopilot mode using various in-vehicle
technologies and sensors” 1. The objective of this report is to investigate ethical
and legal issues surrounding autonomous vehicles currently, and whether these
are going to be potential problems in the future.

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Historical Background

The road to autonomous vehicles began in 1925, with
Houdina Radio Control demonstrating the 1926 Chandler being operated by a
second car following it, in which radio impulses were sent to an antenna. Over
30 years later, the development had continued, when in 1956, the Firebird,
described as having an “electronic guide system that can rush it over an
automatic highway while the driver relaxes” 2 was prototyped. Following on
from these developments, in 1958, the Chrysler Imperial became the first car to
feature cruise control.

In 2004, the DARPA challenge was formed, with a prize of
$1,000,000 being offered to any team that was able to build a car capable of
driving for 150 miles by itself autonomously. However, this was to be a
failure, as the furthest a car travelled was 7.3 miles.

The most recent endeavour into an autonomous vehicle is
by Google, whose ‘Self-Driving Car’ project, now formerly known as Waymo, began
in 2009 and is into the advanced testing stages as of 2017. 

Legal Implications

Many people argue that the biggest legal threat to
autonomous vehicles is cybersecurity and the effects that a major malicious
attack could have on the users of these automated machines. Matthew Channon,
Insurance Expert on driverless cars, has stated that “Hackers could trick
autonomous cars into detecting an object that was not there so that they would
just stop” 3. Subsequently, this could lead to fatal injuries of those inside
the vehicles as if a vehicle was hacked and therefore halted without warning on
a busy freeway, the results could be detrimental. Washington University researchers were able to perform a hack
with the potential to disable millions of car and truck brakes. Incidents like
this raise concerns around the security of these up and coming autonomous
vehicles, and whether they can be trusted to prevent hackers from not only
overriding safety controls, but also stealing valuable personal information.

Data protection may be another concern as autonomous
vehicles collect location data, such as the destination of the vehicle, which
may lead to further security issues. Furthermore, it is possible that this
location data can be manipulated and used by companies for marketing purposes
as, for example, a company can target an individual by researching the
locations that they have visited 4.

Another issue relates to who is legally responsible for
the damage caused during an accident between autonomous vehicles, as although
human error is removed, it does not eliminate incidents from occurring. This
became apparent after the death of a Tesla driver who was testing the car’s
‘Autopilot’ function, in which they crashed due to weather conditions not
allowing the tractor-trailer to be registered, resulting in the brakes not
being activated 5. In terms of legal liability, is it therefore the company
who built the vehicle that is responsible, the autonomous vehicle as it can
register decisions without aid or in fact the driver of the vehicle for not
staying alert?

Many would argue that the aim of developing autonomous
vehicles is to allow drivers to reduce their input whilst travelling, naturally
reducing the amount of vigilance required.

Ethical Questions

The ethical nature of autonomous vehicles will also be
scrutinised by many, with questions being asked as to who takes responsibility
for an accident with fatalities involved. In terms of driverless cars, how does
the autonomous vehicle, of which a driver has no control, morally decide in a
situation of saving the passengers or an innocent bystander in its path? This
situation incorporates the ‘Trolley Problem’, a thought experiment used in
ethics that judges the utilitarianism of a person, in which they have the
choice to let the train collide into a group of people, or divert it to a track
with a single person 6. However, given that it will be a machine that will
have to make this decision, it leaves a sense of uncertainty towards their
judgement of the situation, giving the machine the power to play God. Results
of a survey completed by the American Automobile Association showed that ‘54% of drivers with regular cars would feel
less safe sharing a road with a self-driving car’ 7, representing a general
fear of how the autonomous vehicles have been programmed to respond in
unforeseen circumstances and the morality of allowing it to choose one life
over another.

Another ethical impact is the potential loss of jobs for
workers who are no longer needed due to their workload being completed much
more efficiently through the means of automation. Goldman Sachs Economic
Research has suggested ‘25000 jobs a month’ 8 will be replaced through the
implementation of autonomous vehicles in 25 years. However, as advancements are
made in autonomous vehicles, the efficiency of production is likely to rise,
making them cheaper to run over time. As a result, consumers may have more
expendable income, that can be spent on other markets, allowing them to expand
and see a growth of jobs elsewhere 9. Furthermore, some industries, such as
the transit industry, are facing staffing shortages with ‘over 900,000 new
drivers needed in the US over the next decade’ 10. The introduction of
autonomous vehicles may help to overcome this.


Autonomous vehicles are likely to impact the lives of
many, whether it be through commuting – where drivers no longer need to have
control of their vehicles – or jobs where autonomous vehicles have now replaced
human workers. It is currently undetermined what effect these vehicles are
going to have on the society we live in. It could bring benefits, such as a
reduction of traffic accidents and efficiency in production, or it could prove
to be a hinderance, with potential issues surrounding cyber-security and
question marks over morality and ethics. It is thought that ‘Autonomous
vehicles will be as important as the internet’, only time will tell.