Are Self-Driving Cars Even Ethical?

It’s time to talk about self-driving cars. Many technological innovations–Amazon Echo, an iPhone without headphone port, Sarahah–catch us by surprise. But self-driving cars have been under development since the 1980s, and shot into public view in 2009, when Google announced its hope to have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2020.

Conversations about automated vehicles are so focused on the technology itself that they do not ask how that technology will affect our lives. Several concerns should be part of congregational conversation:

Employment Impact

Who stands to benefit the most from automated vehicles? Companies based in transportation, whose profits would rise if they could eliminate employees. Uber, a questionable company in its own right and force behind automation, envisions a fully-automated rideshare program. But Uber is already a gig-economy refuge for those who cannot find full-time living-wage employment in the traditional economy (anecdotally in my rideshare experience, drivers are mostly immigrants, retirees who can’t afford fulltime retirement, and underemployed Milennials). The goal of automated vehicles is to put people out of work—without thinking about where those workers will find new employment.

Consumption Impact

Promoters of automated vehicles advertise “increased flexibility.” That’s coded language for “spending the same amount of time in the car but with consuming more.” Tech companies hope we’ll spend that car time scrolling Facebook, watching YouTube, or making Amazon purchases. For our consumption-based culture, the main problem with driving is that we can’t buy, can’t click, can’t produce ad revenue.

Why settle for radio ad revenue when we could use our car time to generate revenue for Facebook ads or Google searches? Google, another powerhouse in automation, is looking to increase the usage time of its other products—by keeping us in cars.

Family Impact

Who will decide the rules for self-driving cars? Will parents be tempted to pack their 5- and 6-year-olds into vehicles to travel to school alone? Families may spend the same amount of time in cars—but not together. Developmental psychologists frequently observe that “car time” can be some of the best time to connect with your child. Because the child does not have to make eye contact and the conversation has a fixed length, children—especially teens—can be more forthcoming in car conversation. Even families share car time, if the parent uses the non-operation time to catch up on work emails or plan dinner, it’s not really family time.

Climate Impact

Automated vehicles allow us to disengage from the reality of the car. When we are not watching the gas tank drop as we drive, will we do more driving? If we’re not bound by the number of people in a vehicle, will more households own a larger number of vehicles? When we don’t have to worry about driving sober, will people drink more? Will they rely less on public transit to get home from parties? These factors make it more likely that the ecological footprints of the cars will be higher and that self-driving cars will accelerate the destruction of the planet.

The main objection to self-driving cars is what David Orr calls “fast knowledge:” humans’ ability to develop technology faster than we can evaluate the impact of that technology. As Anabaptists, we must take a healthy skepticism toward innovation-for-the-sake-of-innovation.

A 2017 AAA survey showed that three-quarters of Americans are wary of riding in a fully self-driving vehicle. But older generations were more skeptical of the technology than younger ones, and children who don’t have driver’s licenses are most accepting of it. Christians should never blindly embrace the cultural shifts—we need to discuss automated cars in our church, especially with our children. We need to prepare for the impact of self-driving cars before they arrive.


Self driving cars

Photo credit Gary Bridgman.

This post first appeared in the Mennonite World Review.

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