Monday, March 19, 2018

Robot Cars Should not Tempt us to Try to Criminalize Improper Walking

By now you've probably heard about the robot car that killed a person walking in Tempe, Arizona. It's a milestone of the wrong kind, but an historic milestone nonetheless.

via the ABC affiliate
According to the Arizona Republic (not the USA Today story the SJ is using),
a 49-year-old woman was hit and killed by a self-driving Volvo operated by Uber while crossing a street in Tempe on Sunday night.

The woman was walking a bike across Mill Avenue outside the crosswalk near the Marquee Theatre at about 10 p.m. when she was hit, police said.

Sgt. Ronald Elcock, a Tempe police spokesman, said the car was on autonomous mode with a driver behind the wheel when it hit the pedestrian. [and driving 40mph]

The woman, identified as Elaine Herzberg, of Mesa, died at a hospital.
Note the story's underlining that the person was walking a bike outside the crosswalk. Some accounts suggest that this is a wide stroad with many lanes and infrequent crosswalks. The speed of 40mph is consistent with that.
BikePortland has a note on Portland's approach to testing and certification. Probably what happens in Portland will have a great influence on the rest of the state, though manufacturers will surely look to have national standards rather than state or city ones.

What seems most relevant here in Salem is the way that calls to revive jaywalking laws dovetail with efforts to displace liability from autos, their manufacturers, and their drivers and onto people walking. One way that robot car interests will seek to manage liability, and to reduce the complexity of software engineering, is to externalize that liability and to criminalize improper walking in the wrong time, manner, or place.

Hopefully we are not heading towards
requirements for Pedestrian Safety Equipment
and new penalties for the "crime" of jaywalking
Walking Study: We need
to recriminalize improper walking
This is I fear an important reason that the City's study on walking deaths recommended reconsidering "the lack of jaywalking laws." Autoist consultants know this is coming at us, and they would rather blame walkers than improve robot cars.

The result will be to punish improper walking. This would hold not just for inattentive adults, but for the elderly, for people with canes or mobility devices, for children, for pets, anyone outside of the narrow range of proper walking in time, manner, and place. And the worst form of punishment will not merely be an increase in tickets for improper walking, but will be summary death when the robot cars hit people improperly walking.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials released a statement today that touches on this:
In order to be compatible with life on city streets, AV technology must be able to safely interact with people on bikes, on foot, or exiting a parked car on the street, in or out of the crosswalk, at any time of day or night. Cities need vehicles to meet a clear minimum standard for safe operations so the full benefits of this new technology are realized on our complex streets. Responsible companies should support a safety standard and call for others to meet one as well.
Robot cars need to serve humans. We should not bend human behavior in ways that suggest humans serve the robots.*

One way to help make sure that the robots serve the humans, and not the other way around, is to make sure that we do not criminalize jaywalking and create new crimes of improper walking. Local regulations that are permissive will look inefficient, but they will safeguard public access to the roads and ensure the "compatibility" NACTO calls for.

* Feeling dystopian? With all the news about the data-harvesting social-media outfits that package, sell, and commodify your likes and loves, that package you as the product and make you serve the technology, it seems like this is a good time to revisit Isaac Asimov's laws of robotics, which at one time seemed fanciful, but now are all so very relevant:
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.


Jim Scheppke said...

I would like to learn more details about why the car hit the pedestrian. My understanding has been that one of the most important benefits of autonomous vehicles will be improved safety -- that they will be programmed in such a way as to avoid collisions of all types, whether with other cars or with bicyclists and pedestrians. Why did that not happen in this case? If the technology is not ready to meet our safety standards then they should not be allowed on our streets. I am still hopeful that the advent of autonomous vehicles will mean much safer streets than we have today -- that accidents will become very rare occurrences.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Re: "programmed in such a way as to avoid collisions of all types"

That's what they say, the ideal towards which our utopian dreams are directed. But the reality may very likely be otherwise.

One doom hypothetical scenario for autoists is that cars are programmed to avoid all jaywalkers. Quickly, people on foot learn that they always have the right-of-way, and the utopian endless stream of free-flowing cars is halted by an equal stream of people on foot.

In this scenario, the only way to avoid gridlock caused by people on foot is to let some people be killed under programming that does not avoid all jaywalkers, and a corresponding legal framework that shifts liability to improper walkers.

So in order to facilitate the free-flow of cars, we have to regulate the time, manner, and place of walking, and also get people out of the way with engineered pedestrian displacement systems like the one that collapsed in Florida last week.

The practical details of "programming to avoid collisions of all types" may not be possible, and the auto-industrial-complex will argue for tolerating some baseline number of collisions with people who have voluntarily given up their "protection" through improper walking actions.

We saw how the nascent auto-industrial-complex created the legal doctrine of jaywalking in the 1920s, and we are at a cusp here where the nascent robot car industry will want to fashion similar immunity for car operators in this new environment.

It's going to take real effort to protect street access for all users.

Anonymous said...

"the death of Elaine Herzberg is particularly unacceptable because it has now set a dangerous precedent.

The failure of most local authorities to address the fact that Uber’s vehicle was speeding, or Arizona’s prioritization of cars, or the dangerous design of Tempe’s streets as factors in this crash has now reinforced the belief of many Americans that pedestrians who are killed are 'distracted walkers' who deserve to be punished or ticketed or criminalized or slandered.

Yet statistically, the people killed by cars in this country are our most vulnerable residents—the youngest, the oldest, the sickest, the poorest, and overwhelmingly likely to be people of color.

These are our parents and children. And until we decide walkers matter more than cars, many more of them will die."

Anonymous said...

"The conservative luminary Russell Kirk called cars 'mechanical Jacobins.' While Kirk’s all-too-brief 1962 essay concerned the automobile’s effect on culture, the car has been at its most revolutionary in overturning common law, in exiling people to narrow or non-existent sidewalks and, in truly totalitarian fashion, running over all who resist. The Canadian Tory George Grant went so far as to assert that the 'directors of General Motors and the followers of Professor Marcuse sail down the same river in different boats.' I don’t entirely agree with this idea, but in the case of the automobile it is literally true.

As Hunter Oatman-Stanford argues, mass automobile ownership ushered in a revolution in law. Streets were once understood to be public spaces all had equal right to use and in the case of a crash the common law (following common sense) would assign liability to the operator of the heavier and faster vehicle....

But the automakers looked at the rapidly expanding cemeteries and thought only of the how the negative publicity would affect sales. Taking swift action, they spent heavily on public relations and formed task forces and committees ostensibly designed to promote safety and responsible regulations. In fact they exiled people from the streets and overturned common law decisions: Now it would be up to the pedestrian or cyclist to avoid getting hit; pedestrians could be fined for walking against the lights or crossing the street outside of the crosswalk. When a car mounted the curb and crashed into a building—the building didn’t get out of the way in time, apparently—it would be written off as an unavoidable 'accident'."

Anonymous said...

And here's Strong Towns:

"Humans will not be allowed to interfere with the free flow of traffic. Our economy will depend on it, after all. All those commuters that need to get to their jobs, all those potential customers that need to get where they are going. We can’t have some Cornell West type meandering out into traffic wherever they feel like it. There’s too much at stake in maintaining efficiency.

So, it will be against the law to step out into traffic except at designated places and times."