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4 questions to ethics expert Marc Steen about self-driving cars

Marc Steen is a senior researcher at TNO. He focuses on the ethical side of innovations. We asked him how we can keep innovating responsibly with regard to self-driving cars.
Marc Steen is a senior researcher at TNO. He focuses on the ethical side of innovations. How can we innovate responsibly? For example with self-driving cars.

1. If we want to connect all road users to 5G, we also need to detect cyclists. What would be better: hang up cameras everywhere or follow cyclists via a smartphone?
“If we were to hang cameras up all over the streets, that would be quite an invasion of our privacy. It would mean that you could be filmed continuously and perhaps even recognised on the street. I would like to have the choice not to be part of that. That's why I prefer to be followed via my smartphone. As a cyclist you then have the choice to switch yourself on, after which you become recognisable for self-driving cars, in much the way you now switch on your front and rear lights. But I must also say that it’s not entirely a free choice. Because if three quarters of the people do this and the cars expect it, you have to join in. Otherwise a car will not see you.”

2. What other ethical questions do you have about self-driving cars?
“In a self-driving car I can spend my time in a nice, useful way: e-mail, Netflix, whatever I want. But it can also have unintended effects. Maybe I'll stretch my commute. At the moment I am not keen to travel more than 1 hour, but who knows, that could become 2 or 3 hours. I might then live in Drenthe, for example, and work in Brussels. This is, of course, an interesting possibility technically, but it also has consequences for the environment and families. For example, if you are commuting from 6pm to 9pm, you cannot put your children to bed. You may well spend your time more usefully in the car but it can have a disruptive effect on family life, friendships or hobbies. Self-driving cars give you a lot of freedom, but look at what you give up.”

3. And what are the consequences for privacy?
“Such a system works best if everyone participates: all cars, cyclists and pedestrians. Only then can you control traffic properly and safely. All this data ends up in a cloud, but who owns the data? A commercial company? The US? China? It may be better if it is a public service. It can therefore regulate traffic more in an orderly and fair way, for example by giving priority to ambulances. Suppose it becomes commercially owned. Then big brands might start offering a premium subscription that gives you priority in traffic jams. Do we want that? As a society this is something we have to find out together.”

4. What would you like to leave the reader who is now thinking about a self-driving car?
“Take another good look at what a car is used for. It remains a means to get from A to B. Be aware of what you are prepared to give up, in terms of data and privacy. So you don’t end up in the situation where the car takes you from A to D because that fits the system better. Get yourself a car that actually gives you the freedom to go from A to B.”

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Dr Marc Steen

  • Human behaviour and Organisational Innovations

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