Robots on the Road: The Moral Imperative of the Driverless Car

Don Howard

Driverless cars are a reality, not just in California and not just as test vehicles being run by Google. They are now legal in three states: California, Florida, and Nevada. Semi-autonomous vehicles are already the norm, incorporating capabilities like adaptive cruise control and braking, rear-collision prevention, and self-parking. All of the basic technical problems have been solved, although work is still to be done on problems like sensor reliability, robust GPS connections, and security against hacking. Current design concepts enable easy integration with existing driver-controlled vehicles, which will make possible a smooth transition as the percentage of driverless cars on the road rises steadily. Every major manufacturer has announced plans to market fully autonomous vehicles within the next few years, Volvo, for example, promises to have them in the showroom by 2018. The question is not “whether?”, but “when?”

And the answer to that question is, “as soon as humanly possible,” this rapid transition in transportation technology being among the foremost moral imperatives of the day. We must do this, and we must do it now, for moral reasons. Here are three such reasons.

1. We will save over one million lives per year.

Approximately 1.24 million people die every year, world-wide, from automobile accidents, with somewhere between 20 million and 50 million people suffering non-fatal injuries (WHO 2013a). The Campaign for Global Road Safety labels this an “epidemic” of “crisis proportions” (Watkins 2012). Can you name any other single technology or technological system that kills and injures at such a rate? Can you think of any even remotely comparable example of our having compromised human health and safety for the sake of convenience and economic gain?

Accident_2010But as driverless cars replace driver-controlled cars, we will reduce the rate of death and injury to near zero. This is because the single largest cause of death and injury from automobile accidents is driver impairment, whether through drunkenness, stupidity, sleep deprivation, road rage, inattention, or poor driver training. All of that goes away with the driverless car, as will contributing causes like limited human sensing capabilities. There will still be equipment failures, and so there will still be accidents, but equipment failure represents only a tiny fraction of the causes of automobile accidents. There are new risks, such as hacking, but there are technical ways to reduce such risks.

Thus, the most rapid possible transition to a transportation system built around autonomous vehicles will save one million lives and prevent as many as fifty million non-fatal injuries annually. And this transition entails only the most minimal economic cost, with no serious negative impact of any other kind. In my mind, then, a rapid transition to a transportation system designed around the driverless car is a moral imperative. Any delay whatsoever, whether on the part of designers, manufacturers, regulators, or consumers will be a moral failing on a monumental scale. If you have the technical capability to prevent so much death and suffering but do nothing or even drag your feet, then you have blood on your hands. I’m sorry to be so blunt, but I see no way around that conclusion.

2. The lives of the disabled will be enriched.

Consider first the blind. The World Health Organization estimates that there are 39 million blind people around the world (WHO 2013b). Since 90% of those people live in the developing world, not all of them have access even to adequate roads, nor can they afford a vehicle of any kind. But many of them do and can. The driverless car restores to the blind more or less total mobility under individual, independent control. Can you think of any other technical innovation that will, by itself, so dramatically empower the disabled and enhance the quality of their lives? I cannot. Add to the list the amputee just returned from Afghanistan, the brilliant mind trapped in a body crippled by cerebral palsy, your octagenarian grandparents, and your teenaged son on his way home from a party. Get the picture?

If you have the means to help so many people lead more fulfilling and more independent lives and you do nothing, then you have done a serious wrong.

3. Our failing cities will be revitalized.

Think now mainly of the United States. After the devolution of our manufacturing economy and the export of so many manufacturing jobs overseas, the single largest cause of the decline of American cities, especially mid-size cities in the industrial heartland, has been the exodus of the white middle class to the suburbs. And that exodus was driven, if you will, by the rapid rise in private automobile ownership, which made possible one’s working and living in widely separated locations. Once that transition was complete, with most of us dependent upon the private automobile for transportation, the commercial cores of our cities were destroyed as congestion and lack of access to parking pushed shops and restaurants out to the suburbs. Many people still drive to work in our cities, but the department stores, even the supermarkets and the pharmacies are gone. Once that commercial infrastructure goes, then even those who might otherwise want to live in town find it hard to do so.

The solution is at hand. Combine the driverless car with the zip car. As an alternative to the private ownership of autonomous cars, let people buy membership in a driverless zip car program. Pay a modest annual fee and a modest per-mile charge, perhaps also carry your own insurance. Then, whenever you need a ride, click the app on your mobile phone, the zip car takes you wherever you need to go, then hurries off to ferry the next passenger to another destination. When you are done with your shopping or your night on the town, click again and the driverless zip car shows up at the restaurant door. You don’t have to worry about parking. With that, the single largest impediment to the return of commercial business to our city centers is gone.

The impact will be differential. Megacities like New York, with good public transportation, will benefit less, though a big disincentive to my driving into Manhattan or midtown Chicago is, again, the problem of parking. But the impact on cities like South Bend could be enormous.

I happen to think that restoring our failing cities is a moral imperative, because more than just a flourishing business economy is implicated, like adequate funding for public schools, but about that we might disagree. Surely, though, you agree that, if it doesn’t rise to the level of a moral imperative, it would be at least a social good were we to make our cities thrive again.

So there you have three reasons why the most rapid possible transition to a transportation system based on the driverless car is a moral imperative. Indeed, it is one of the most compelling moral challenges of our day. If we have the means to save one million lives a year, and we do, then we must do all that we can as quickly as we can to bring about that change.

Yet many people resist the idea. To me, that’s a great puzzle. We are all now perfectly comfortable with air travel in totally autonomous aircraft that can and often do fly almost gate to gate entirely on autopilot. Yes, the human pilot is in the cabin to monitor the controls and deal with any problems that might arise, as will be the case with the “driver” in driverless cars, at least for the near term. But many of the most serious airplane accidents these days are due to human error. The recent Asiana Airlines crash upon landing at San Francisco in July was evidently due to pilot error. One of the most edifying recent examples is the crash of Air France flight 447 from Rio to Paris in June of 2009. A sensor malfunction due to ice crystals caused the autopilot to disengage as per its design specifications, but then the human crew reacted wrongly to turbulence, putting the aircraft into a stall. In this case, the aircraft probably would have performed better had the switch to manual not been designed into the system (BEA 2012). If we can safely fly thousands of aircraft and tens of thousands of passengers around the world every day on totally automated aircraft, we can surely do the same with automobiles.

And if we can do it, then we must.


Many thanks to Mark P. Mills (
for helpful and stimulating conversation about the issues addressed here.


BEA 2012. Final Report On the Accident on 1st June 2009 to the Airbus A330-203 Registered F-GZCP Operated by Air France Flight AF 447 Rio de Janeiro – Paris. Bureau d’Enquêtes et d’Analyses pour la sécurité de l’aviation civile. Paris.

Watkins, Kevin 2012. Safe and Sustainable Roads: An Agenda for Rio+20. The Campaign for Global Road Safety.

WHO 2013a. Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013: Supporting a Decade of Action. World Health Organization.

WHO 2013b. “Visual Impairment and Blindness.” Fact Sheet No. 282, updated October 2013. World Health Organization.