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Autonomous Vehicles: Impact on Business and Society (Part 4 of 4)

Many of the technology challenges facing driverless cars are already well understood and, in some cases, solved. We have to give more thought to the legal, ethical, and societal impacts.

Data-driven horseless carriages are not on the horizon. They are already speeding toward us in the middle distance and will arrive soon. Many of the technology challenges are already well understood and, in some cases, solved. We have given much less thought so far to the legal, ethical, and societal impacts.

Driving the Re-creation of Cities and Highways

Beyond clearing city streets of horse manure, the effect of the automobile on society and the economy in the 20th century was profound. Understanding those effects and how they occurred can give some indication of how we should now proceed.

With the spread of the automobile, work and living patterns changed dramatically. Commutes began to take a significant percentage of every working day. Transport, once communal and social, became increasingly solitary. The geography of cities was altered with the explosion of residential suburbs and office parks linked by ever-widening freeways. City centers were shunned by many as city driving became slower and parking more expensive. Car and home ownership radically increased among a burgeoning middle class. Increased mobility allowed greater social mixing between different, dispersed communities.

These changes were a result not of the automobile itself but of the way we used the freedom it offered and how we addressed the limitations it imposed. Let's take an initial look at autonomous vehicles from the same perspective.

Within city and suburban areas, automobile ownership may essentially be replaced by "personal public transport" where autonomous vehicles are available at a moment's notice at much lower costs and environmental impacts than today's cars. Individual garages would disappear and roads in many cases be returned to human use. Although the total number of vehicles would be reduced substantially, lower levels of off-peak use would still necessitate parking garages. However, with vehicles largely interchangeable, such garages would be smaller and more efficient, working on a first-in, first-out basis.

Personal public transport offers substantial new business opportunities for the transportation industry, as seen in investor interest in ride-sharing and similar businesses today. It will also likely drive substantial changes in land use, housing and infrastructure, necessitating public and private investment, as well as new thinking on planning regulation.

Intercity transport, whether for passengers or goods, could be automatically convoyed to reduce overheads. For longer journeys, vehicles with sleeping accommodation would be available. Travelers could choose to travel alone or in social groups. Such possibilities lead to a wide variety of novel business opportunities. Highway and other physical infrastructure will likely be downscaled for lower traffic volumes but need to be upgraded in quality for safety and ease of autonomous navigation. The need for overnight stopovers in remote motels will diminish.

With all vehicles seeing near continuous use and higher mileage in shorter times, better and more durable designs and builds will be needed. Preventive maintenance will be the norm, at the request of the autonomous vehicle itself.

Whether urban or intercity, providing entertainment, information, or education to a captive and otherwise unoccupied audience will be big business and, indeed, big data business. Cellular and other networks will need to be upgraded to cope with vast data volumes.

No Privacy in Private Cars?

Data security issues will need close attention. Hacking into autonomous vehicles raises the possibility of remote hijacking of vehicles, deliberate "accidents," and other nefarious activities.

There's also the issue of personal privacy. Government and citizens must decide on standards of ethical behavior regarding data use and sharing, and new or updated laws will be needed to regulate this environment.

As discussed in Part 2, autonomous vehicles may become the most prolific creators and consumers of data imaginable. They will collect every detail of their internal activities. They will store a complete, continuous record of their location. They will gather details of every passenger. Such information will amount to a continuous and permanent record of every journey taken by every traveler. The automobile that used to be the most private spot for your first hot date becomes the ultimate surveillance device.

In Part 2 I also mentioned constant monitoring of drivers -- including those in old-fashioned, drive-it-yourself autos. You may argue that taking unsafe drivers off the roads is a good thing. You may believe that the detection and prevention of "all hazards, all crimes, all threats," a stated goal of the fusion centers established by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is a valid and viable societal aim. However, the devil lies in the details here.

With the ability to detect and record every infraction of each letter of the law, to see every deviation from "perfect" behavior, society is faced with some impossible challenges. A legal system based largely on precedent cannot foresee future possibilities. Perfection in the definition of laws and in prosecution of all offences is, at best, an extraordinarily expensive proposition.

The broader consequences of totally pervasive surveillance in society are widely believed to be negative. Let's briefly enter the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham's extraordinary late 18th century prison design with an "inspection house" at its center and every cell completely exposed to possible observation. Bentham believed that "[t]o be incessantly under the eyes of an Inspector is to lose in fact the power of doing ill, and almost the very wish." Prof. Neil M. Richards in the Harvard Law Review offers three arguments to show that "the fear of being watched causes people to act and think differently from the way they might otherwise" and that serious dangers are posed to democracy and free speech by this belief in the power of knowing everything.

However, the bigger worry is that we are, as a society, approaching a world of total surveillance with little considered thought or reasoned argument.

A Final Word

Do you want to be taken for a ride by driverless cars? Will you trade your privacy for that opportunity, or will you press business and government to regulate privacy issues in this burgeoning industry? It's up to you.

There may still be a short window of time to influence the automobile industry and government toward a more balanced and nuanced approach, but we need thoughtful and careful deliberation about what our ultimate destination as individuals and as societies should be.

About the Author

Dr. Barry Devlin defined the first data warehouse architecture in 1985 and is among the world’s foremost authorities on BI, big data, and beyond. His 2013 book, Business unIntelligence, offers a new architecture for modern information use and management.


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