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Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Will Your Driverless Car Kill You So Others May Live?

By Eric Schwitzgebel, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

It’s 2025. You and your daughter are riding in a driverless car along Pacific Coast Highway. The autonomous vehicle rounds a corner and detects a crosswalk full of children. It brakes, but your lane is unexpectedly full of sand from a recent rock slide. It can’t get traction. Your car does some calculations: If it continues braking, there’s a 90 percent chance that it will kill at least three children. Should it save them by steering you and your daughter off the cliff?

This isn’t an idle thought experiment. Driverless cars will be programmed to avoid collisions with pedestrians and other vehicles. They will also be programmed to protect the safety of their passengers. What happens in an emergency when these two aims come into conflict?

The California Department of Motor Vehicles is now trying to draw up safety regulations for autonomous vehicles. These regulations might or might not specify when it is acceptable for collision-avoidance programs to expose passengers to risk to avoid harming others — for example, by crossing the double-yellow line or attempting an uncertain maneuver on ice.

Google, which operates most of the driverless cars being street-tested in California, prefers that the DMV not insist on specific functional safety standards. Instead, Google proposes that manufacturers “self-certify” the safety of their vehicles, with substantial freedom to develop collision-avoidance algorithms as they see fit.

That’s far too much responsibility for private companies. Because determining how a car will steer in a risky situation is a moral decision, programming the collision-avoiding software of an autonomous vehicle is an act of applied ethics. We should bring the programming choices into the open, for passengers and the public to see and assess.

Regulatory agencies will need to set some boundaries. For example, some rules should presumably be excluded as too selfish. Consider the over-simple rule of protecting the car’s occupants at all costs. This would imply that if the car calculates that the only way to avoid killing a pedestrian would involve sideswiping a parked truck, with a 5 percent chance of injury to the car’s passengers, then the car should instead kill the pedestrian.

Other possible rules might be too sacrificial of the passengers. The equally over-simple rule of maximizing lives saved without any special regard for the car’s occupants would unfairly disregard personal accountability. What if other drivers — human drivers — have knowingly put themselves in danger? Should your autonomous vehicle risk your safety, perhaps even your life, because a reckless motorcyclist chose to speed around a sharp curve?

A Mountain View lab must not be allowed to resolve these difficult questions on our behalf.

That said, a good regulatory framework ought to allow some manufacturer variation and consumer choice, within ethical limits. Manufacturers or fleet operators could offer passengers a range of options. “When your child is in the car, our onboard systems will detect it and prioritize the protection of rear-seat passengers!” Cars might have aggressive modes (maximum allowable speed and aggressiveness), safety modes, ethical utilitarian modes (perhaps visibly advertised so that others can admire your benevolence) and so forth.

Some consumer freedom seems ethically desirable. To require that all vehicles at all times employ the same set of collision-avoidance procedures would needlessly deprive people of the opportunity to choose algorithms that reflect their values. Some people might wish to prioritize the safety of their children over themselves. Others might want to prioritize all passengers equally. Some people might wish to choose algorithms more self-sacrificial on behalf of strangers than the government could legitimately require of its citizens.

There will also always be trade-offs between speed and safety, and different passengers might legitimately weigh them differently, as we now do in our manual driving choices.

Furthermore, although we might expect computers to have faster reaction times than people, our best computer programs still lag far behind normal human vision at detecting objects in novel, cluttered environments. Suppose your car happens upon a woman pushing a rack of coats in a windy swirl of leaves. Vehicle owners may insist on some sort of preemptive override, some way of telling their car not to employ its usual algorithm, lest it sacrifice them for a mirage.

There is something romantic about the hand upon the wheel — about the responsibility it implies. But future generations might be amazed that we allowed music-blasting 16-year-olds to pilot vehicles unsupervised at 65 mph, with a flick of the steering wheel the difference between life and death. A well-designed machine will probably do better in the long run.

That machine will never drive drunk, never look away from the road to change the radio station or yell at the kids in the back seat. It will, however, have power over life and death. We need to decide — publicly — how it will exert that power.


Eric Schwitzgebel is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside and the author of “Perplexities of Consciousness.” He blogs at the Splintered Mind. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

©2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Ali Eminov via Flickr

Planning To Sell Your House? Then Declutter — Now!

By Erin E. Arvedlund, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — Tom Sauerman and his wife, Sue, are still active in their Philadelphia neighborhood and continue to be members of its seniors club. He is a former president of the community council.

But after 35 years, they made a deliberate decision to sell their beloved home and move into a continuing-care retirement community not far away.

“We moved two years ago, when I was 77 and my wife was 74, and we were both in good health,” Tom Sauerman recalls.

Their journey offers a road map for those contemplating independent- or assisted-living facilities or retirement homes.

Start by developing a plan and a timetable; allow up to two years to complete the process. When selling a house, engage a real estate agent who knows your neighborhood well, and don’t overvalue the property. And finally, Sauerman advises, “start decluttering — now!”

The couple recognized opposing forces at work. One was the urge to stay put.

“We were in good health, so there was no rush. We could wait on selling the house until the market improved, put off all that downsizing work. Our friends thought we were crazy to leave before needing to go anywhere,” he says.

The other was their desire to go forward in life.

“Do it while you’re in control of everything,” he says. “Don’t wait until you have to depend on your kids to help sell the house, make the move or care for the remaining spouse. The sooner you get out from under house and property care, the sooner you can be free of those expenses and concerns, the sooner you can really enjoy retirement and have the time to do what gives you pleasure.”

Financial advisers are a must when shopping for a retirement-home option.

“When I have a client who’s looking at a retirement facility, I tell them that they should insist on getting the financials from that place,” says Mark Blair, founder of Blair Wealth Management, a registered investment adviser.

“People sometimes buy into communities which are poorly managed or go bankrupt. Make sure to have someone with a finance background analyze the establishment’s financial records and ask: Are they overly leveraged? Does the retirement place have a lot of debt? Or are they in good shape?”

Blair has personally dealt with these questions: A sibling with multiple sclerosis lives in a nursing home locally, at a cost of about $13,000 a month.

“Any institution should provide you audited financials,” he says. “If they won’t provide it, look elsewhere. Why should they hide that from you?”

Costs range from $40,000 to $100,000 a year for an independent living community, depending on how upscale you want it to be, says Blair.

A continuing-care retirement community usually requires a purchase of about $400,000, plus maintenance fees.

Assisted-living facilities average yearly costs of $44,000 to $53,000, Blair estimates.

The Sauermans looked at more than a dozen places before settling on Cathedral Village in Philadelphia.

“The first one we liked, we requested its financial reports and sent them to our banker son. He and a nursing-home specialist in his bank’s commercial loan department reviewed them. The facility was heavily financed and could result in sizable annual increases of the monthly fees,” Sauerman says.

Coping With The Clutter

Decluttering “holds people back from starting to act on their future,” Sauerman says.

After 57 years of marriage, the couple had every closet jammed. “Today, we live in a two-bedroom apartment and have yet to find something that we ‘need’ from our former home,” he says.

They began with a “men’s weekend” with two sons and a grandson to initiate the decluttering while Sue Sauerman visited a friend. Tom chose to attack the worst of it: an attic full of clothes, some of which his wife wore in high school. A local theater’s wardrobe mistress took some; the rest went to Goodwill.

The Sauermans invited their entire family the following Christmas for a final visit to the homestead, flying in everyone from Colorado, South Dakota, Illinois, and New York. The couple put everything in the basement and told the relatives to take their pick.

To their shock, little was claimed. “Our choices of china, pictures, knickknacks, furniture, all that, were as different to them as our parents’ and grandparents’ possessions were to us when we were their age,” he says.

A Long Process

They reviewed everything in three passes over many months. First, they threw out things they didn’t want to take with them and that were of little value. Next, they sorted things of enough value to be sold. Then they faced the reality of that two-bedroom apartment. Valuable items went to an auction house; the piano, to a piano dealer.

“It’s painful to realize that your family members don’t value your treasures as much as you do. It’s unsettling to put them up for sale at a tenth of their original price. … If you try to get what you consider as ‘full value,’ you’ll go crazy,” Sauerman says.

Instead, focus on the pleasure and use that these things provided, he says. “You can’t move forward with all this ‘stuff’ holding you back.”

Photo: Tom and Sue Sauerman moved to a retirement community before they needed to. “We were in good health,” Tom Sauerman said, “so there was no rush. We could wait on selling the house until the market improved.” (Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)