What can a taxi do without a driver? Robot cars - legal here, banned there.

I'd love to see a video of a conversation between police officers and an autonomous car that almost ran over someone on the crossing.

There is something tautological in the phrase "autonomous car". Which sounds even better when we call the thing invented a century ago (and named from the beginning) an automobile. This is autonomous by name. And even I, a Sunday driver, who never pushed my head under the hood and my body into the channel, understand that the thing called nowadays a car was supposed to give people the autonomy to travel. Therefore, it provided freedom, which was illustrated in probably all American road movies.

Among them, I was most impressed by "Convoy" with Rubber Duck played by Kris Kristofferson and "Thelma & Louise" with Geena Davies, Susan Sarandon and Brad Pitt. The car was supposed to give us the freedom to escape to another, better world, which certainly must hide somewhere beyond the horizon.

Today, however, autonomous cars have been invented - and called autonomous - for completely different reasons. They are, to put it simply – driverless vehicles. Technically, they are robots that have the form and tasks of a good old automobile. Basically, they would act as taxis and delivery vehicles, taking away the last chance of employment for those without any special education, e.g. Pakistani immigrants in the USA or Tajik immigrants in Poland. This, however, is not the worst thing, because social dramas that do not involve ourselves are generally of little concern to us.

A real thriller involving robot cars, comparable to the two dramas I mentioned above with two-track vehicles in the main role, happened, in several terrifying scenes, in the weeks from mid-August to the end of October 2023 in San Francisco.

And as recently as August 10 this year, Reuters reported that "following a controversial vote by a state agency, Alphabet Inc's (GOOGL.O), Waymo and General Motors Cruise companies can transport paid passengers day and night throughout San Francisco." Yes, in this city (not counting the suburbs of 600 km2, 900,000 inhabitants), 24 hours a day you could get into any taxi, completely without a driver (so you had to take care of your luggage yourself) and drive away. Not necessarily for a romance, but you should definitely get insurance in advance.

First, literally the next day, Cruise taxis paralysed a large quarter of the city named after the poor man from Assisi, because they lacked cellular internet needed for the operation of the robot and its GPS. All because of the concert taking place there, which everyone was planning to attend, resulted in clogging the network, just like we do every year on New Year's Day, trying to send identical wishes to everyone from our address book at 12 p.m. or call each other with slightly more personal congratulations. And since such a taxi is not a Roomba that runs on the floor and, programmed for midnight on December 31, it will simply park under the chair to resume the program when the network clears, but a car in the middle of the intersection, the effect was not comical, but tragic.
Investigators with the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board are looking into the Uber self-driving car that caused the death of a woman in Tempe, Arizona, in 2018. Photo HANDOUT / Reuters / Forum
The local Californian press reported further accidents with Cruise taxis: one (with passengers on board who were injured in the accident) did not understand the topic of giving way to a fire truck driving at an absolutely breakneck speed towards a fire during a driving school course, and another bumped into other driver who, as if nothing had happened, entered the intersection on a red light. Well, how could he! Therefore, the problems are not only technical, as the Internet or GPS may fail, and a blackout may also happen in California - or elsewhere.

Driving school will be a great reference for me here, because I'm a bad driver and I don't have this “something” in my genes that allows me to be better. There, they teach that the most important thing is not the road signs (except STOP and red lights), but the ability to anticipate the behaviour of other road users. And you can't teach someone this - you can only make one aware about it.

     Of course, it is checked at a deeper level (or at a very shallow level), through medical examinations, whether a given human individual has good enough eyesight and enough intelligence to be able to do what a robot is clearly not yet capable of doing. Namely, to step into another person's shoes, to this basic humility that says that if I make mistakes along the way, others can make them as well. If I can be in a hurry, then others can probably be in a hurry too. And since I can't even hear the ambulance siren very well, but I can already see in a rear view mirror that vehicles are making strange movements when entering the roadside, I do the same. Robots still don't have intuition. And that would be only the first part, because, of course, before the Cruise company (which is an annex of General Motors) started properly, it had already banned the operation of its taxis in San Francisco unless there was a driver inside who could replace this autonomous robot when needed – like when the vehicle is out of network, idea or intuition. It will be like a driving instructor, who sits next to you with an additional side mirror, clutch and brake, and is able to use the gearbox with his left hand. What will he do when this taxi drives autonomously... hopefully he won't be bored, like a driver from Wrocław recently, who was caught in a - fortunately - harmless collision because he was watching porn while driving.

The second part of the matter is the psychological issues surrounding the term: responsibility. The risk of an accident itself is a part of everyday life and it is impossible to live without being at risk. To repeat the banal conclusions of defenders of increasing the share of robotics in our everyday life: we do not give up knives, food processors, cars or planes, or even nuclear power plants, because accidents involving them occur.

Of course, driverless taxis from the other company, Google, can still operate safely in San Francisco, while other cities, such as Los Angeles, are introducing such pilot programs, despite the protests of residents. Being at the forefront of global information technology and robotics is a commitment. Today, there are 125 vehicles of this type, made by Cruise, Waymo and Volkswagen ADMT, on the streets of the Texas capital, Austin. So far, they have not caused any injuries to pedestrians, cyclists or scooter drivers.

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However, a very serious question arises as to who IN OUR CONSCIOUSNESS is responsible for an accident caused by an autonomous car. Let's leave legal matters to lawyers. In the USA, it is certainly solved in such a way that the compensation will finally give rise to a Hollywood blockbuster, like "Erin Brockovich", so someone will make money anyway. We can't blame the machines. We kill an aggressive animal and do not feel any deep guilt about it - which leads to crazy situations, such as destroying hives because a bee stung our child who is allergic to the venom.

But someone who would chop up a neighbour's harvester because he got into it while drunk and injured his child would be called a madman. What's the machine's fault? We have the law of Hammurabi with people - although, as we know, it leads to an escalation of violence and literally blindness and toothlessness. We also have judgments and arguments in our relationships with people - either legal ones or - grenades, because "a court is a court, but justice must be on our side."

Of course, the company that owns or manages autonomous vehicles bears some responsibility, but mentally we are not ready to accept the responsibility of the machine in the event of an accident. The machine, by its nature, is, even if not stupid, still soulless. Therefore, it is impossible to appeal to its conscience, it cannot be moved by any tragedy. Blocking the campus of one of the largest Texas universities (and in Texas everyone has a car because they need to have one) because an autonomous car pilot program is underway and you can drive for free, and there was only an Internet failure, is not a tragedy. But, when a firetruck didn't arrive on time, so people and their property burned down - is.

In Texas, causing someone's death can still result in a long prison sentence or even the electric chair. Still, victims' families have the possibility to look into the eyes of a criminal as he takes his last breath. Is this inhumane? Now imagine a robot in the electric chair. The fact that the car is not an android makes the whole thing almost comical. However, in the common consciousness, the death of a human being is not a trivial or ridiculous matter, and blaming the responsibility for it on a machine is even more inhumane for us, I think. And this actually is very humane.

In order not to end on a high note - because I usually appear on these pages as an advocate of science, modernity and technology - let me make the following comment. Recently, I watched a video on one of the police fan-pages (I'm not sure if it was "Pigs give voice" or something else) showing a woman from Warsaw (but with a car registered in Ożarów) who was in such a hurry that she ran over a grandpa with his little grandson on a pedestrian crossing. The regulations did not require them to wear reflective vests, it was dark, and the lady was filmed having a 15-minute discussion with the police. She didn't want to be filmed, and therefore didn't want to get out of the vehicle, and it turned out that not only did she almost run over two people on the crossing, but also that she hadn't had a technical inspection of the vehicle for a long time. So she had her registration taken, was fined and earned penalty points.

I have mixed feelings at this point, because it was basically filmed, so the undeniable patience of the traffic policemen is one thing, the lady's insolence is another, but I would like to see such a video of a conversation between a policemen and an autonomous car in such a situation. According to Austin residents who commented on this topic in the relevant survey, the most important problem for such vehicles will be "difficulties in following traffic instructions issued by law enforcement agencies."

– Magdalena Kawalec-Segond

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

-translated by Maciej Sienkiewicz
Main photo: Autonomous bus on the street of Hangzhou city in China. Photo CFOTO / ddp images / Forum
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