The Market Ticker
Commentary on The Capital Markets- Category [Technology]

Yes, I said cheer, and I did.

The U.S. announced Thursday the first fatality of a wreck involving a car in self-driving mode, the 40-year-old owner of a technology company who nicknamed his vehicle "Tessy" and had praised its sophisticated "Autopilot" system just one month earlier for preventing a collision on an interstate. The government said it is investigating the design and performance of the system aboard the Tesla Model S sedan.

The deceased was a flat-out jackass.

The wreck occurred in Florida and I actually know where it was; I've driven through there.  A truck turned (legally) in front of the vehicle, which was on autopilot, during difficult lighting conditions making the "autopilot" effectively blind to the fact that it had been obstructed from the side.

The driver was obviously not paying attention because he did not hit the brakes nor take control back by turning the wheel, and the car went under the trailer broadside, killing the driver instantly.

The driver of the truck claims there was a portable DVD player in the car and that a Harry Potter movie was still playing on the screen when he reached the vehicle after the wreck. Note that detecting the driver's hands on the wheel doesn't do a thing if you're watching a movie instead of the road.  People wreck all the time because they fail to maintain situational awareness; the oft-used chestnut is the guy texting while driving (which can get you ticketed), but provided you maintain your scan of your surroundings you can also maintain control.  However, if not, well....

Here's the reality -- vehicles are dangerous, multi-ton objects being operated with sufficient velocity such that they nearly-always carry lethal kinetic energy all of the time they are moving.  This basic fact, by the way, is one of the reasons that I scoff at people who argue for "more gun laws" while claiming that cars as "so useful to society that the tens of thousands killed in them annually should be excused while the smaller percentage killed by other-than-intentional self-harm must not be."  That may be a true statistic but is an intentionally false and void comparison because every single time you get behind the wheel you by definition are attempting to control lethal amounts of kinetic energy as is everyone else on the road.  A firearm, until and unless it is fired, has no kinetic energy developed that must be controlled to avoid innocent people being harmed or killed.  For this reason the analogy falls completely flat.

There is currently no such thing as a "machine driven car" that is independent of the driver, and I'm not sure I want there to be on a car I own -- ever -- because there are situations where a driver has to hit something and you can bet that you won't be the one who makes that split-second decision if that arises.  For example, let's say that your car is operating at highway speeds on a two-lane highway where opposing traffic is present and there is no usable shoulder (e.g. telephone poles, trees or other obstructions are on the right side) and a child runs out into the street from behind a bush that prevented you from seeing the child prior to his entry into the roadway.  You must hit something in that situation -- either the kid is likely to be killed or you are likely to be killed.  Note that such an incident is not a criminally or civilly-chargeable incident under today's laws and it is the driver who makes the split-second decision what he or she hits.

Another (much-more common!) situation arises where you are stopped at a red light, first in line in a middle lane with vehicles on both sides and cross traffic going through the intersection.  An approaching vehicle from behind is either not slowing or failing to slow at a sufficient rate to avoid hitting you and you detect that in the rear-view mirror.  If you go through the intersection to avoid being struck from the rear you are likely to be hit by cross traffic in your door, which is (statistically) much worse than being rear-ended because the impact occurs much closer to your body and there is far less car between you and it to absorb same.  In fact, a T-bone accident like this is very likely to kill you.  You cannot take evasive action to either side either as that's blocked by other vehicles.  Again, this is a situation that can arise and if it does is not a civilly or criminally-chargeable incident for you.

What choice is made by an autonomous vehicle in either of these situations?

You have no idea how it has been programmed and even if that has been allegedly disclosed you have no way to prove it will perform as claimed either until and unless the situation arises!

In any event the driver of this car appears, according to reports, to have decided to relinquish control to a robot and that resulted in his death.  I don't know that I can characterize what happened here as a "malfunction" because the operator decided to do something beyond the published parameters of the device's stated capabilities.

This one, in short, is in my view charged off as "Death by Darwin."

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