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A new bill could put fully autonomous vehicles on PA roads. Does it pass the business ethics test?

John Hooker, an ethics professor at Carnegie Mellon University, discusses how he and his students think about the dilemmas behind the commercial launch of driverless vehicles.

Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr. announces the new bill at Hazelwood Green. (Photo via Twitter)
Fully autonomous vehicles — without a human safety driver — might soon be the norm on Pennsylvania roads.

On Wednesday, state officials shared a new legislation proposal for autonomous vehicle companies to test their products in Pennsylvania without a human driver. At a press conference at Carnegie Mellon University’s Mill 19 center at Hazelwood Green in Pittsburgh, Republican State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., Democrat State Sen. Jay Costa and Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Secretary Yassmin Gramian introduced Senate Bill 965, which will allow test vehicles to operate at level 3, 4 or 5 autonomy as defined by SAE International.

While the legislation would be new for Pennsylvania, similar measures have already been taken in other states, like Texas, Arizona and Florida. But as Pittsburgh is a hub of research and development for the technology, this bill could ensure that the success of companies based in that city such as Aurora, Argo AI, Locomation and  Motional isn’t outsourced to other states, but kept in the area of the residents and institutions who helped those companies grow.

(While autonomous vehicles are not yet being testing in the Greater Philadelphia region, some relevant robotics research is happening at University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Lab.)

With the bill’s proposal, “we send a message to the nation and to the world that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania will be a leader in this emerging, billion-dollar industry and that our commonwealth is open for business,” Langerholc said at the event. The bill, he mentioned, is the product of bipartisan efforts across multiple levels of government and business with the hope of making Pennsylvania an “epicenter” of the autonomous vehicle industry.

Ethical considerations

With a disruptive tech that still lacks widespread public trust, there remain questions of the ethics behind fully allowing driverless trucks and cars on the road. John Hooker, a professor of business ethics and social responsibility at CMU’s Tepper School of Business, told that this is a subject his classes discuss frequently.

“In the ethics world, we have two principles that apply to an issue like this,” he said. “One we call utilitarian principle and the other is the autonomy principle.”

John Hooker. (Photo via LinkedIn)

The utilitarian principle has to do with maximizing benefit with respect to releasing this level of autonomous vehicle on the road. That principle should be easy enough to satisfy, he said, given the incredible danger that human-operated vehicles pose today.

“There’s a long-term benefit there and accelerating the research — since Pennsylvania has world-class research in this area — is certainly one way to enter that benefit,” Hooker said.

Furthermore, the way the state currently deals with mitigating risky or unsafe drivers on the road is with a driving test. There’s no reason, Hooker argued, that the same can’t be done for autonomous vehicles, in addition to providing liability coverage and data as assurance for their safety. Given all of that, autonomous vehicles seem to pass the utilitarian principle.

As for the autonomy principle, which states that a product or concept should not expose someone to risk of injury or death without informed consent, Hooker said that’s even easier to satisfy. Humans already give informed consent to the danger of road vehicles any time they get into a car or cross the street. Those behaviors act as an acceptance of the risk, though it comes with the assumption that vehicles meet the expected safety standard.

That line of thinking is the same for autonomous vehicles: “If they are up to the normal expectations for safety in a car, and we have no violation of autonomy because we have informed consent, can one say reasonably that self-driving car is as safe as one would normally expect a car to be with a human driver?” Hooker queried. “If that’s true or if you can rationally believe that’s true, then we pass that test.”

The trust factor

Still, he acknowledged that much of the public might not yet trust autonomous vehicles with no driver despite the technology passing these ethical tests. But that may simply be a matter of time before the idea is normalized. While any autonomous vehicle-related accidents like the one from a self-driving Uber car in Arizona in 2018 will likely gain an outsize portion of media attention, Hooker said that doesn’t affect that actual ethics behind implementing the tech.

“Even if the public is irrationally afraid of self-driving cars, that doesn’t affect the ethical choice,” he said. “The company needs only ask, are we imposing a level of risk that’s higher than already imposed by human driven vehicles? And if not, then they’re off the hook ethically.”

Given the number of technology or other consumer products whose full risk wasn’t apparent at the time of their launch — think DDT, social media, X-ray machines — public hesitation is understandable. But that probably won’t stand in the way of autonomous vehicles companies pursuing commercial launches in the next year or two.

Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.

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