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Tesla and the moral hazard of self-driving cars

August 17, 2021, 4:28 PM UTC

Three summers ago, I was on a train heading to the Algarve region of Portugal for a close friend’s wedding when, all of a sudden, the vehicle stopped, then slowly reversed to the nearest station. It idled for more than an hour. Annoyed, I joined others to leave the cabin and stretch my legs outside. 

That’s when I saw, just close enough to be visible, an ambulance. 

The train had fatally struck a man. 

Who was to blame for that man’s death? I don’t know the details. Maybe he jumped on the tracks. Perhaps the driver was negligent. 

But what about me? There I was, an oblivious American tourist, just enjoying the desert scenery, not paying attention to where the train was going, or how fast. Did I have a hand in that man’s death?

Maybe that’s a stretch. Responsibility for crashes usually falls on drivers or pedestrians. 

What if the driver is a computer, though? And what if the company selling that computer makes it seem better than it actually is?

I’m talking here about the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has reportedly launched an investigation into Tesla’s so-called “Autopilot” driver-assist technology. Tesla’s cars, you see, keep crashing into other vehicles when this technology is on. 

Elon Musk’s company insists that its cars are safer with the technology switched on than not. But what if that sidesteps a bigger question? There is a kind of moral hazard that comes when we outsource our decision-making to a handful of pattern-matching programs. And though “Autopilot” can put the driver back in control in complex situations, anyone who’s ever had to glance at their phone while driving can tell you that it takes a beat before you can reorient yourself to the nuances of tightly-packed highway. In fact, something just like that happened with a driver using Tesla’s Autopilot in 2019, resulting in the death of a 22-year old. 

Consumers should also ask themselves if they want to give Tesla this much power. Liability, now, is contained to the people involved in a crash. But if we trust that Tesla’s Autopilot can drive as well or better than a human, why shouldn’t a programmer in Palo Alto be on the hook for hundreds, possibly thousands, of accidents — and deaths — per year?

I remember listening to a banker tell me, around 2016, that streets would soon be paved with asphalt containing special chips that cars would be able to read, allowing them to take you to your destination — all while eliminating traffic and accidents, and cutting emissions to boot. When I asked about rural roads, or places like where I grew up, in Hudson County, New Jersey, where decades went by before potholes are filled, he looked at me as if they didn’t matter. In Anna Wiener’s memoir Uncanny Valley, she recalls a conversation with two engineers who lament that the problems with autonomous vehicles “weren’t technical, but cultural. The biggest obstacle was public opinion.” 

The argument for self-driving cars’ benefits always sounded suspiciously utopian to me, that when everything is perfect, there will be no problems. The practical thresholds of liability for drivers and autonomous vehicle makers are likely to get hashed out in the courts for years to come. But maybe we should be questioning whether this is the right technology to have at all.

Kevin T. Dugan
@KevinTDugan

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Sino tech crackdown. China, in the midst of a broad restraining of its behemoth tech sector, issued new rules banning the hijacking of traffic, spreading misinformation about competitors, and unfair competition. The country has previously issued hefty fines against Alibaba for its market practices. Jack Ma’s retail company, as well as Tencent, Baidu, JD.com, and others saw their stocks slide on the news. 

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FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Deepfake my pitchbook. In a technological development that only an accounting firm could love, EY is using deepfake technology to glam up business pitches. Deepfakes, for those not in the know, are videos that take people's likeness and make them do or say things that they really didn't. Sometimes, it's funny. Other times, it can be a nightmare

The accounting firm isn't using the technology to trick prospective clients, but more as a way to spice things up during this never-ending pandemic age. It's all disclosed and out in the open. One booster compares it to bringing a puppy on camera, a way to add a little bit of levity to an otherwise dull presentation. 

I don't know, though. I'm writing this with my dog sleeping in my lap, and I gotta tell you, the appeal to me is that she's real and here. This isn't a puppy so much as it's a Tamagotchi. Remember those?

The story, from Wired: 

EY partners have used their doubles in emails, and to enhance presentations. One partner who does not speak Japanese used the translation function built into Synthesia’s technology to display his AI avatar speaking the native language of a client in Japan, to apparently good effect.

“We’re using it as a differentiator and reinforcement of who the person is,” says Jared Reeder, who works at EY on a team that provides creative and technical assistance to partners. In the past few months he has come to specialize in making AI doubles of his coworkers. “As opposed to sending an email and saying ‘Hey we’re still on for Friday,’ you can see me and hear my voice,” he says.

The clips are presented openly as synthetic, not as real videos intended to fool viewers. Reeder says they have proven to be an effective way to liven up otherwise routine interactions with clients. “It’s like bringing a puppy on camera,” he says. “They warm up to it.”

 

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BEFORE YOU GO

Fish tales. If you haven't watched the HBO series White Lotus, one of the underlying tensions in the series concerns a teenager, Quinn, who was separated from his phone, only to discover the joy of rowing in the waters around Hawaii. Since it's the middle of August, when many people are on vacation or out enjoying beach weekends, I thought a short film, The Age of the Swordfish by Vittorio De Seta, which was restored via a Martin Scorsese project, would be a good thing to chew on. 

The movie, all of 11 minutes long, follows Italian swordfish hunters in the 1950s, the women who wash their clothes, and the celebrations they partake in after the sun sets. Not only is it visually stunning and stylish—may we all be so lucky to go fishing in silk shirts—but it's a fascinating look into how communities were built around pre-digital technologies, and how people worked, and lived communally. 

The video is available for free until Friday. 

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