Ogmius Newsletter

A Fork in the Road: Jack Stilgoe Considers the Future with Self-Driving Cars

by Alison Gilchrist, CSTPR Writing Intern

Joshua Brown was killed when his Tesla Model S crashed while in self-driving mode on May 7, 2016. Photo: Associated Press.

When you imagine a future with self-driving cars, what do you picture? Are you sliding into your own Tesla Model S, or are you calling up Driverless Cars Company X for a ride? Do the cars circle campuses and downtown streets until summoned? Or do they quietly return to driveways and parking lots, ready to be woken up when needed? For all of Elon Musk’s confidence, it is still unclear how self-driving cars will fit into or reshape our society.

Jack Stilgoe, visiting professor from the University College of London, became increasingly interested in self-driving cars after a crash in 2016 resulted in the driver’s death and reawakened some doubts about the technology.

“It’s a bit of a morbid interest,” laughed Stilgoe, “But people like me are extremely interested in accidents because they show the reality of technology, not just the shiny public image.”

Stilgoe is visiting the CIRES Center for Science and Technology Policy Research (CSTPR) for a year to research how driverless cars are being developed, how they are being governed and how they are being perceived by the public.

“I’m interested in the novel aspects of the science of self-driving cars, and how they relate to machine learning and artificial intelligence,” said Stilgoe. “This is the particular thing that has enabled self-driving cars to suddenly go from seeming completely impossible, about 10 years ago, to now seeming sort of inevitable.”

But, Stilgoe said, as with all emerging exciting technologies, there are questions we should all be asking about how self-driving cars are emerging and whose interests they serve. For example, what is not being talked about? And who should we, the public, trust to tell us the truth?

Stilgoe pointed to some past examples of exciting technological advancements we can draw lessons from. The emergence of cars - normal, driver-required cars - is a good analogy to the impacts that self-driving cars might have.

“When cars emerged at the start of the twentieth century, they radically reshaped social norms and the structure and fabric of our cities, in ways that people didn’t anticipate at the time,” said Stilgoe. “I think we need to do better at anticipating the impact of self-driving cars, because the promises are just as big as they were for regular cars back in the 1900s.”

Stilgoe also referred to agriculture biotechnology, which many expected would revolutionize the food system. In various ways it did, but not all of the claimed benefits came to fruition, and many people were skeptical of the benefits that were touted by agriculture companies. Stilgoe makes the point that not all of the claims of people and companies touting self-driving cars should be taken at face value.

In his March 22 CSTPR noontime seminar, Stilgoe discussed some of the different directions that widespread adoption of driverless cars could take in the future. He believes that the philosophy and design of machine learning algorithms will shape the future one way or another.

“Self-driving cars are seen by some engineers as just like a game of chess, with a machine learning to do it as well as or even better than humans,” explained Stilgoe. “That leads you to a hubristic model, where you say that anything that the world can throw at me, I can navigate as a self-driving car.”

He juxtaposes this with a model that assumes the self-driving cars are not good at reacting to unexpected events, leading to a future that has separate routes for self-driving cars, or a future that requires “smart roads”.