Driverless cars are on the way, but we’re not going to get to where we need to be if values aren’t behind the wheel.

There is great business potential in autonomous driving for automobile manufacturers and suppliers, as well as for IT and telecommunications companies. Telematics are sure to generate new capabilities and significantly disrupt and re-shape today’s mobility ecosystems.

Autonomous cars are also going to make us reexamine values, such as our ideas of freedom, purely rational decision-making, and security.

Real benefits and potholes ahead

A recent survey performed by BearingPoint in Germany shows road users consistently expect big benefits from autonomous driving. 62 percent of respondents see time-savings through improved route guidance as a large or very large benefit. In addition, respondents expect less congestion and a better flow of traffic (61 percent), a lower risk of accidents and an increase in driving comfort (both 60 per cent). The findings were largely independent of age, gender, state, or whether driving in rural or urban areas.

There are myriad benefits, but I can’t help but feel troubled by how we’re going to lose the freedom to let chance take us where it will. To jump in the car and go, destination unknown; deciding of a sudden to make a detour to a friend’s place en route to the supermarket; cruising slowly down the old neighborhood - the same road I used to play football on – feeling the road at the pedals and a sense of control through the steering wheel. All that will be lost if we just get in our cars and punch in the destination.

I think of the situation where an autonomous car is traveling down the road and a kid jumps out of nowhere and the car has the choice but to hit the kid or put everybody in the car in mortal danger. What purely rational decision does the car make? This is a question that haunts me.

More broadly, who would be liable in the case of an accident? Around 66 percent of respondents in our survey see this as a big or very big problem.

Then there are significant challenges in providing data protection in a telematics-centric environment. Though seen as relatively unimportant by people under 30, there are many of us who are not so trusting about where our data ends up, especially if it shows every place we go.

Besides privacy, there’s the issue of giving up control coupled with safety. We need to make sure the systems that are in control of our cars are secure and hack-proof. As has been shown, for example in this YouTube video, many systems are not hack-proof, and cars on the road today may be hijacked over the internet. When autonomous cars hit the road, they need to be 100% protected against cyber risk, but so far in the digital world it is difficult to find anything that is hack-proof.

We’ve got a lot to think about before autonomous cars hit the road.

To start that conversation, let’s consider some of the values we might want in the driver’s seat. With respect to the values of ‘freedom’, ‘safety’, and ‘control’ concerning self-driving vehicles, consider the level of autonomy you would be prepared to permit.

How comfortable are you:

  1. Driving from A to B, in a rural area, at low speed, with no passengers
  2. Driving in an urban centre, in challenging traffic conditions, at higher speed, with a fellow passenger
  3. Driving long distances, with no speed limit, with a young family in the back
  4. With a police vehicle driving in hot pursuit of a suspected criminal 

And will these values change as more autonomous vehicles appear on the road?

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