The Dilemma of Robocar Testing…

Article By : Colin Barnden

Why is it acceptable for the AV industry to conduct tests on non-consenting "human guinea pigs" to supposedly save 40,000 lives a year?

To advocates of autonomous vehicle (AV) technology, the 40,000 American lives lost each year on our highways is prima facie evidence of the unsuitability of humans at controlling road vehicles. “Grant us unregulated testing of AV tech on public roads,” they say to lawmakers, “and we will train AI and deep learning to reduce fatalities to zero.”

Based on that promise, unregulated AV testing is a very compelling argument; however, on further reflection, it doesn’t sit so well with the highly restrictive testing practices universally adopted in, say, the medical and pharmaceutical industries. Let’s consider cancer research as an example.

Cancer claims the lives of more than 600,000 Americans each year [American Cancer Society: Cancer Facts & Figures 2018] yet no adult showing up at the ER with a broken leg or a flesh wound – and in otherwise good health – would experience their M.D. injecting them nolens volens with a trial cancer drug. The argument that “You may die, but think of all the other people who can be saved if we can find a cancer cure in the shortest possible time,” is not only abhorrent, but illegal. Why? The Nuremberg Code.

From its entry on Wikipedia, the Nuremberg Code is defined as a set of ethical research principles for human experimentation created as a result of the Nuremberg trials at the end of the Second World War. The ten points of the Nuremberg Code are as follows:

  1. Required is the voluntary, well-informed, understanding consent of the human subject in a full legal capacity.
  2. The experiment should aim at positive results for society that cannot be procured in some other way.
  3. It should be based on previous knowledge (e.g., an expectation derived from animal experiments) that justifies the experiment.
  4. The experiment should be set up in a way that avoids unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injuries, except, in experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.
  5. It should not be conducted when there is any reason to believe that it implies a risk of death or disabling injury.
  6. The risks of the experiment should be in proportion to (that is, not exceed) the expected humanitarian benefits.
  7. Preparations and facilities must be provided that adequately protect the subjects against the experiment's risks.
  8. The staff who conduct or take part in the experiment must be fully trained and scientifically qualified.
  9. The human subjects must be free to immediately quit the experiment at any point when they feel physically or mentally unable to go on.
  10. Likewise, the medical staff must stop the experiment at any point when they observe that continuation would be dangerous.

An in-depth analysis of the ethics of testing AV tech on public roads is well beyond a blog piece here on EE Times. It is evident, however, that the circumstances of the March 2018 death of Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona by an experimental Uber robotaxi were clearly in violation of the Nuremberg Code.

Why is it acceptable for the AV industry to conduct tests on non-consenting “human guinea pigs” to supposedly save 40,000 lives a year, when the Nuremberg Code expressly forbids such practices to cure cancer, which would save more than 600,000 lives a year? This might become one of the defining questions of the AV testing debate in 2019 and beyond.

So, how about an AV industry moratorium on robocar testing on public roads, until responsible testing – that is, testing in accordance with the Nuremberg Code – can be agreed? Whatever those responsible testing principles may turn out to be, perhaps they could be named the “Herzberg Protocols”, after Elaine Herzberg.

In parallel, perhaps the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) could remember the “safety” element of its own name and mandate the adoption of Level 2 ADAS – autonomous emergency braking, lane keep assistance, blind spot monitoring and camera-based driver monitoring systems – in all vehicles with four wheels or more (truck, coach and bus, too) as soon as is practically possible. This change alone would be a great start towards reducing fatalities.

Waymo is the undisputed leader of AV tech, so it falls to the “world’s Most Experienced Driver” to lead the industry out of this misguided experiment. An experienced driver instinctively knows when to slow down or back-up – and when to stop.

— Colin Barnden is principal analyst at Semicast Research.

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