Are You Ready to Give up Your Steering Wheel … and Your Judgment?


What happens if you're immersed in a book and your car is about to crash?

Do you want safer roads, a shorter commute and smarter drivers? If implemented, a new car system would cut down traffic deaths by 90 percent and make the morning drive so easy you can read a book or watch a movie while you drive.

There is a catch. You have to give up the steering wheel.

Time magazine recently ran a cover article titled “No traffic. No accidents. No deaths. All you have to do is give up your right to drive.” It is about how self-driving cars are the wave of the future (and are already here). The article favors autonomous cars and paints them as the only way to eliminate traffic deaths. This is no futuristic fantasy; these cars are a few short years away from becoming mainstream.

In the past several years, a handful of states have passed laws allowing for the testing of autonomous vehicles, and Google, along with Tesla and all major car companies, have been trying their prototypes on highways. The Obama administration has pledged to spend “four billion dollars in autonomous technology over the next decade.”

The concept is simple: artificial intelligence installed in your car is responsible for navigating to your next destination, in the safest and most efficient way possible. This is accomplished by using devices such as cameras, radar, and GPS, all controlled by a central computer in the car. Your hands stay off the wheel, and you are encouraged to have your morning coffee or read a book; the car will keep you safe.

With a system like this put into action, it is believed traffic deaths would be virtually eliminated. With a computer behind the wheel, human error is no longer an issue.

However, the benefits to such a system can only come about when everyone is driving an autonomous car. For example, until yesterday, when it disclosed an accident caused by one of its driverless cars, Google had claimed that after driving 1.7 million miles over six years, there were only 11 accidents and the Google car was never at fault.

The notion being put forth is that if every car had a self-driving system in place, computers would make the decisions and accidents would become rare; laws would be put into place mandating the new mode of travel, enforced with penalties for driving old “unsafe” cars. It is likely that insurance companies would create incentives — higher premiums for autonomous drivers, for instance — for people to switch to automatic.

With more than 32,000 traffic deaths having occurred in 2014, the thought of reducing that sad number to zero is tempting. On first consideration, driverless cars seem like exactly what we need.

But here’s the thing: you have to let the computer decide who lives and who dies.

These cars are being called the first “social robots” as they are given immense power over the fate of human life. The fact remains that “accidents will still happen. And in those moments, the robot car may have to choose the lesser of two evils — swerve onto a crowded sidewalk to avoid being rear-ended by a speeding truck or stay put and place the driver in mortal danger.”

The problem with giving cars so much responsibility is that “a self-driving car still lacks empathy and the ability to comprehend nuance.” Will the car understand that the school bus in front of you is empty and that swerving to avoid it may result in you driving off a cliff?

The only way around this type of situation is to give the driver control over the car at the last second. This is a dicey preposition, as a driver who is “reading a book” or enjoying his coffee or is otherwise distracted is a driver whose skills and reflexes have become so compromised that his ability to assess a roadway threat, weigh options and take appropriate action may simply be impossible. Thus, human judgment and ability is made secondary to the machine. An airline pilot may put his plane on automatic, but the circumstances requiring his intervention are rarely split-second in nature, as it would likely be for a driver.

We must consider such realities before we consent to putting ourselves behind the wheel of a car that drives itself. Does a possibility of unprecedented “security” and “safety” outweigh human consideration? Is it greater than the freedom to make ethical decisions that affect human life and death?

#2294 It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications. On the other hand, guiding principles cannot be inferred from simple technical efficiency, or from the usefulness accruing to some at the expense of others or, even worse, from prevailing ideologies. Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God.Catechism of the Catholic Church


Philip Kosloski is a writer and blogger. His blog can be found at

Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.
Aleteia offers you this space to comment on articles. This space should always reflect Aleteia values.
[See Comment Policy]