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The real challenge for self-driving cars

It’s a given that almost all new technologies foster some unintended consequences. Take mobile phones: what was once viewed as revolutionary is now something ubiquitous. But the ubiquity of mobile phones has resulted in 1.3 million vehicle crashes in 2011—a full 23% of auto collisions that year involved cell phones. Despite the large number of incidents, the laws around texting while driving vary widely. Thirteen states— Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands—all ban drivers from using mobile phones while driving. Forty-four states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands all ban text messaging while driving.

It makes one wonder how the U.S.—either federally or state-by-state—or any government for that matter, will determine how to react to the emergence of commercially available self-driving autonomous cars. What was once viewed as “science fiction” is soon to be a reality on the roads. As Erik Brynjolfsson, Professor of Information Technology at MIT Sloan School of Management, told the Wall Street Journal, “About 10 years ago, I was teaching a class at MIT. One of the topics of discussion was what machines can do and what machines can’t do. One of my examples of things that machines can’t do was drive a car.” Fast-forward to 2012, when Brynjolfsson was able to take a test drive in a fully automated Google car. And, Google’s not the only innovator working on self-driving cars—Nissan has committed to having commercially viable autonomous drive vehicles on the road by 2020. So, it’s not a matter of if, but when.

The bigger challenge, as Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland, Director of MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program, pointed out during an MIT Sloan CIO Symposium panel, “Are You Ready for the Shifting Frontier of Mind and Machine?," “The rate of innovation of technology is dramatically faster than that of government and culture. The choice is to stifle innovation or to figure out how to evolve government and culture faster.”

As the panel—which was moderated by Brynjolfsson and included John Leonard, Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering at MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Thomas Malone, Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management—bluntly stated, once autonomous cars become commercially available, there undoubtedly will be accidents. Again, it’s a question not of if, but when. But, when that happens, who is responsible? Is the owner of the car responsible for the actions taken by his or her “robot” (which in this case is a car)? Or is the manufacturer responsible? Where will the legal liability reside and how will that differ from country to country and state to state?

As of late 2013, 17 states and Washington, D.C., started considering legislation around driverless cars. These range from simply allowing autonomous cars to be tested and operate on the roads to actually assigning responsibility and liability. It’s clear that we will very soon see autonomous cars moving into the commercial market. What’s not clear is how the world will respond to them.

Erik Brynjolfsson is a Professor of Information Technology at MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business, Chair of the MIT Sloan Management Review, and the Editor of Information Systems Network.  Brynjolfsson frequently teaches in MIT Sloan Executive Education programs. 

Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland is among the most-cited computational scientists in the world and a pioneer in computational social science, organizational engineering, and mobile computing. He directs MIT’s Human Dynamics Laboratory and the MIT Media Lab Entrepreneurship Program and is an advisor for the World Economic Forum, Nissan Motor Corporation, and a variety of start-up firms. Pentland frequently teaches MIT Sloan Executive Education programs.

Thomas Malone is the Patrick J. McGovern (1959) Professor of Management and a Professor of Information Technology at the MIT Sloan School of Management and the founding director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. He teaches in Intelligent Organizations: Collaboration and the Future of Work at MIT Sloan Executive Education

This entry was posted in Innovation on Fri Jul 25, 2014 by MIT Sloan Executive Education


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