22 May 2018

Three Forms of Structural Discrimination by Autonomous Cars - by Hin-Yan Liu

In a new piece, Dr. Liu discusses three forms of structural discrimination in autonomous cars.

The advent of autonomous vehicles on the roads had been heralded to improve safety and save lives. Indeed, such is their perceived and predicted improvement in relation to human driving that advocates suggest a moral imperative to introduce them as quickly and as thoroughly as possible.

This article builds on Hin-Yan Liu's previous work to discuss the different types of structural discrimination that are likely to be introduced unwittingly through incorporating autonomous vehicles. Much has been debated about the ‘trolley problem’, where a runaway trolley will kill five workers tied to the tracks, unless a switch is flicked that diverts the same trolley to an alternative track where only one worker will be killed. Autonomous vehicles draw analogies to the debates, where the moral configuration of the vehicles needs to be considered in constrained accident scenarios.

This paper argues that, first, drawing analogies to the trolley problem distorts the moral lens: by adopting the position of the decision-maker, the driver perspective is advanced at the cost of the interests of third parties and other bystanders. Second, trolley problem logics legitimate crash optimisation calculations: where the harm and costs of accidents should be minimised. But the interconnected nature of autonomous vehicles would pattern and accumulate minor preferences into more major consequences that look very much like discrimination. Third, the advent of autonomous vehicles is likely to transform the physical nature and design of urban space, to the detriment of pedestrians and the public at large. The prospect for architectural exclusion looks large, giving precedence to automobile users while externalising the costs.

Taken together, this article hopes to advance public discourse and discussion surrounding the likely introduction of autonomous vehicles in the near future. Otherwise, their introduction will be accompanied by subtle societal changes that would be embedded and entrenched with these technologies.

The paper can be found here (pdf)