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An Ethical Look at Self-Driving Cars

July 23, 2019 by Elena Conway

What Happened Next? | The Exploration of Practical Ethics Symposium

Self-driving cars, once the realm of science fiction, are quickly becoming reality as car companies race to be first to put a model on the market. But, according to the Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Johnathon Ehsani and the Whiting School of Engineering’s Tak Igusa, the testing of autonomous vehicles raises important ethical questions. For example: Since most testing is taking place in higher-income areas with excellent infrastructure, how would these cars perform in areas with poor road markings and potholes? Autonomous vehicles have the potential to alleviate some critical social problems — but what if they can’t function in the areas where they’re needed most?

Ehsani and Igusa began studying these issues with support from an Exploration of Practical Ethics grant. They and other teams of Johns Hopkins faculty presented preliminary findings from their research at a November 2018 symposium hosted by the Berman Institute of Bioethics, which administers the grants.

The pair, along with their team of faculty and students, have received other internal awards, including the 2018 Johns Hopkins Discovery Award, which recognizes interdisciplinary faculty collaboration. Ehsani and Igusa have also presented to audiences far beyond Hopkins, contributing to the global conversation about the future of autonomous vehicles. They shared some insights on these developments in this installment of What Happened Next?

Why is it concerning that testing is happening in higher-income areas?

Researchers Tak Igusa and Johnathon Ehsani pose for a portrait in front of the seal of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Tak Igusa (left) and Johnathon Ehsani of the Whiting School of Engineering and Bloomberg School of Public Health, respectively, are studying not only the safety of self-driving cars, but also how they can be deployed in an equitable way.

Ehsani: Lower-income neighborhoods are currently underserved by existing transportation. If autonomous vehicles are made available only to those in high-income areas, then it’s possible that their introduction might exacerbate the existing disparities in access to new mobility in transportation.

We looked at the California DMV [Department of Motor Vehicles], which requires companies to release the locations of crashes that have occurred between their testing-vehicles and any other object. Using that data, we saw that testing tends to be concentrated in certain areas where the infrastructure is better. If testing is happening only in these high-income areas, and if deployment follows in these areas, then we’re going to be in a situation where the introduction of this new and potentially transformative technology is going to worsen inequality. We don’t want that to happen.

Having found that from our research, we began working with cities to help them formulate a policy environment for the testing and deployment of these vehicles.

What kind of policies are we talking about?

Igusa: We’re currently modeling different ownership models and pricing structures to suggest policies that prioritize access of autonomous vehicles to underserved neighborhoods. For instance, autonomous vehicles can help get [low-income families] to medical and other services. They can also directly address issues in food deserts where the primary food sources are corner stores or carry-outs. While people in these areas do go to grocery stores, they go infrequently — around once a month — and tend not to buy fresh fruits and vegetables because they don’t last very long. Instead, they stock up on unhealthy, non-perishable foods. Access to autonomous vehicles will enable residents in food deserts to more easily get to grocers with healthier foods. They can also deliver such foods to these residents.

Ehsani: Building public transit systems is expensive, and adding a line of a train or even a bus line is not trivial. Autonomous vehicles, being small, nimble, and reasonably cheap, could be a way to infiltrate areas that have been poorly accessed until now.

These vehicles could also significantly reduce the number of injuries and deaths on the road. Human error is responsible for the overwhelming majority of crashes. We can minimize injuries and deaths through implementing evidence-based public health and injury prevention principles in autonomous vehicle testing; and once the technology is mature, it has the potential to save thousands of lives each year.

How did the Exploration of Practical Ethics grant help move your research forward?

Igusa: One thing that positions Hopkins ahead of other universities is the culture of novel cross-disciplinary collaboration that has been enabled by internal funding. It’s very rare for public health and engineering, for instance, to work together in this way. Usually, engineering applications in health are focused on medical devices and therapies, and we’re not doing that. This is engineering in a very different, non-medical context. But you can see how our collaboration is a natural fit.

What motivates us is that the people on the outside of Hopkins are excited by our work. What we hear over and over again from big players — like Volkswagen, GM, and Toyota — the people in the industry, and other policy groups in the cities, is that our thinking is very refreshing and is a very different perspective than what engineers and the tech-heavy people tend to do.

What are your next steps in this research?

Igusa: There is an institute called the Institute for Assured Autonomy that’s going to be launched at Johns Hopkins this summer, and one thing that we’re proposing to them is a real test bed, where we have a small fleet of autonomous vehicles doing the kind of things that we’ve been talking about in health disparities. The research questions that we seek to answer with our test bed are those with direct public health impact: How can autonomous vehicles best improve the food environment and access to health services?

You really need a large amount of funding to address these questions, and we know that this will have to come from the industry. But before the industry comes to the table, they want to see credibility. That’s why private philanthropy is so important.

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Topics: Alumni, Berman Institute of Bioethics, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Whiting School of Engineering, Promote and Protect Health