What ugo valenti told me about Self-Driving Cars (and where we're going)

Published on SolidSmack.com on October 21, 2016. 

self-driving-car-00.jpg

As populations surge, ideas to improve life in those urban environments emerge almost as quickly. The future certainly looks interesting, but when advancing technologies present a new set of struggles for city leaders, growth can fast become growing pains.

“There’s a huge movement of people migrating towards living in cities around the world,” Ugo Valenti tells me. “More than 50% of the world’s population live in cities right now, and that’s a number that’s going to continue to grow, so cities need to be sure that they can give their citizens what they need.”

Valenti is the Show Director for the Smart City Expo World Congress. This international conference and trade show leads the way in showcasing the latest in cutting-edge urban technologies from around the world, and takes place each November in Barcelona.

There’s no lack of excitement when Valenti speaks about one technology in particular that is already changing how people think about the landscape of our cities. “The driverless car can make a huge difference, not only on the environment, but on the square metres we have available for citizens. If we can get rid of 75% of the cars on the road because of travel sharing, we won’t need as many parking spaces.”

75% may seem optimistic and, it’s true, some see the future of autonomous vehicles as uncertain, with travel sharing possibly increasing or, Ugo’s hope, decreasing the amount of vehicles. The latter means parking spaces become park spaces, lower infrastructure cost, less construction and more space in crowded cities for housing, offices, retail or simply reviving the outdoors.

The Design Dilemma

 Ugo Valenti, Show Producer 

Ugo Valenti, Show Producer 

We may have the technology, but unleashing self-driving cars on our roadways means charting out an entirely new legal terrain. While considering the results however, they may be missing an important aspect to all of this.

“There’s a huge amount of legislation that has to happen to even achieve the possibility of having these driverless vehicles on the streets of cities around the world. One big part of that is the ethical situation behind who is making the decisions about how the driverless car reacts to very specific events–what they call the ‘trolley dilemma’.” explains Valenti.

The ‘trolley dilemma’ refers to the way values are weighed when making a choice between one bad outcome and another (Doing vs. Allowing Harm). When looking at the way self-driving cars navigate high risk situations, the ‘trolley dilemma’ takes shape in snap decisions about who to save and who to sacrifice. Or, as Valendi puts it: “If a car faces an accident, does he turn left and kill five people or does he turn right and end the life of just one occupant of the vehicle?” Of course, this assumes other scenarios can’t be programmed for consideration, that AI can’t allow for adaption or even that design can’t address some of these more ethically obscure situations.

This is where auto manufactures and lawmakers split. Last week, Mercedes-Benz executive Christoph von Hugo told Car and Driver that his company’s self-driving cars will protect their driver and passengers first, even if it means the death of others. Meanwhile, lawmakers across Europe and North America scramble to introduce legislation around autonomous vehicles that results in smarter regulations on their roadways.

“There’s a huge ethical concern here,” Valenti says. “It’s something that has to be legislated, and that legislation cannot come from the auto manufactures or software makers. It has to come from the government–that’s very important. Otherwise, driverless vehicles cannot happen. Without that, it’s not going to happen.”

However, there’s one important aspect not being considered here. Where legislation, software and governments often fail, the private sector, engineering and design firms, can move faster to address many of these concerns, delivering smarter designfor these smarter cities.

Where We’re Going…

Will we need roads? Flying cars are still in the future, but we’re getting closer to autonomous travel everyday, with many companies like Tesla, Google and others already well into the testing phase.

In September, ride sharing pioneer Uber gave autonomous vehicles a test drive in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Initially only available to selected Uber riders in the downtown core, these driverless vehicles get around the ‘trolley design dilemma’ by, well, having a driver. A specialized Uber engineers sits shotgun, watching the car’s vitals on a laptop, poised to take back control from the computer if needed.

Google’s Self-Driving Car Project is already operating in Mountain View, California, Austin, Texas, Kirkland, Washington and Phoenix, Arizona. Cars are equipped with sensors and software to detect and  evaluate objects as far a 200 yards away.

And there’s more happening everyday with these companies, cars and their software leading the way showing how close we are to transforming mobility in the metropolises of the near future. Will infrastructure and city design always be a step behind? Or can it turn to leading the way? Or even better, can collaboration between car manufacturer begin now, outside the mire of legislation?

When you think about these concerns and delivering a better autonomous car driving experience, are there ways in which design can solve the argument? It’s a question we’ll be faced with across different industries as technology like this becomes more prevalent as our cities (and we) begin to adapt.