As the driverless revolution gathers momentum, will the Local Hero prevail?

by Neha Puri Senior Manager, Disruption & Innovation

The Science Museum’s new exhibition ‘Driverless: Who is in control?” feels timely as we progress towards an autonomous future. If you had the power, would you save an elderly person over a toddler, an executive over a homeless person, perhaps an athlete over someone who wasn’t?

We have previously written about how it isn’t technology itself that creates change; rather change comes from the way we organise our lives, communities and economies in order to use technology. The future will be shaped by the interplay between the two pathways of innovation and centralisation. Our four scenarios below help illustrate how we may interact with autonomous vehicles.

In a highly innovative, highly centralised world, the machines reign supreme. Vehicle ownership could be restricted to tech-platforms only. They would also control the decision-making algorithms that make life and death choices in the rare cases of a collision. In a fully-connected world of wearables, a utilitarian algorithm could use data on productive life-spans left, insurance costs etc to calculate and execute the ‘optimal’ outcome. In contrast, a highly decentralized world where the pace of innovation is de-accelerating, we may see a mix of autonomous and conventional vehicles competing on the roads - survival of the fittest. The navigation systems might vary depending on the manufacturer (Chinese, or American), with no single algorithm having the power to determine outcomes. The complexity of such an ecosystem may mean that collisions remain stubbornly high.

Diagram 1: Autonomous Vehicles in the City of the Future: Who will be in control?


An increasingly non-innovative future could also be more centralised. Under a global rationing scenario, vehicle ownership could be limited to a privileged elite. Acting in self-interest, these would be incentivised to programme their navigation systems to protect the occupants of the car in all circumstances. For example, in the case of sudden brake failure, the vehicle would choose the option of least impact, even if it meant harming innocent bystanders or pedestrians.

If the scenarios above seem dystopic, then the local hero provides a more optimistic vision of the future. In a highly innovative, highly decentralised world, empowered citizens may choose to replace private vehicles with autonomous public transport to address urban congestion and emissions. Community-owned navigation systems would be programmed in accordance with wider social values. MIT’s moral machine - on display at the Science Museum - has identified some universal preferences (e.g., save more lives than fewer) amidst various cultural and economic differences.

If the Local Hero did prevail, who would you choose to save? Leave your comments below.

If you would like to discuss these issues, or the impact of emerging technology on your industry, then please get in touch with Euan Cameron.

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