Google Doubles Down on Self-Driving Vehicles

The number of self-driving vehicles on Californian roadways is growing fast, with issues of safety and morality in tow.

by / June 19, 2015

Google now has 48 permits for self-driving vehicles in California, compared to the 23 permits held mid-May.

The new permits represent an expansion in the tech giant’s innovative transportation program, but also a new branch of research; they allow for moving the testing of a fleet of low-speed, two-seater cars from private to public roads. The new prototype vehicles, which can only hit a top speed of 25 mph, are expected to journey onto public streets near Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters sometime this summer.

Combined with the vehicles being tested by other companies like Mercedes-Benz and Tesla, the new vehicles would put the total number of self-driving vehicles on California’s public roads to 77. With more than 13 million registered vehicles in the state, just a few dozen self-driving machines can hardly be expected to have a substantial impact. Spotting one of the rolling research vehicles is more a peek into the future than anything.

Traffic fatalities have steadily declined in recent decades, but thousands still die each year. In California in 2012, 2,816 people died as a result of traffic accidents. Self-driving vehicles might someday eliminate such deaths. On June 18, California released reports detailing six accidents involving self-driving vehicles that showed the other (human-driven) vehicle caused each accident; in all cases, no one was seriously injured. Google has reportedly logged more than 1.8 million miles in its self-driving vehicles, none of which have been in a serious accident.

Though expected to be safer overall, self-driving vehicles also raise moral questions usually reserved for philosophy classrooms, like whether a self-driving car should be programmed to put its inhabitant into a potentially unsafe situation to protect the safety of others. In a no-win scenario where the choice is between saving the life of one traveler versus an entire school bus filled with kids, technologists are placed in the difficult position of programming the machine either to kill its owner and serve the greater good, or to protect its owner at the expense of others' lives.

Philosophers have debated the merits of competing arguments in the trolley problem for thousands of years, but the evolution of technology may soon force society to settle on an answer that everyone can live with. Alternatively, the rise of autonomous vehicles will bring to life a new set of ethical debates impacting society that the public refuses to agree on, just as debates on topics like abortion and the death penalty are unlikely ever to be settled completely.