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Filling Voids and Fixing Problems in Autonomous Vehicle Algorithms

Waymo Chrysler Pacifica in Los Altos / Creative Commons / bit.ly/2KFonDR


It’s been just over a year since the first pedestrian was hit and killed by a self-driving car. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about the algorithms that drive autonomous vehicles. 


Self-driving cars are probably better than human drivers at maintaining safe speeds and distances on highways. But the technology still has serious problems, such as algorithms that are better at detecting light-skinned pedestrians, and therefore are more likely to hit a dark-skinned pedestrian

Nicholas Evans argues that the artificial intelligence community has not done enough to correct the biases that are currently embedded in their systems. 

“This is not a new problem and it's not a problem that's exclusive to autonomous vehicles,” he told Living Lab Radio. “The problem with race in algorithmic bias is very long standing.” 

Evans, who is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, is working with other philosophers and an engineer to write algorithms using ethical theories. 

One area of his work has to do with the distribution of very small risks over millions of miles driven. 

In one example, an autonomous vehicle is passing a vehicle transport truck on the highway. 

“If [the autonomous car] moves around in its lane in order to keep its occupants safe, is it applying risk to someone in a third lane by getting too close to that driver,” Evans asks. 

“These aren't necessarily risks that always involve death, but they are risks that, when you add them up over the billions and even trillions of miles that Americans drive every year, could substantially affect not only the number of people who have serious injuries or die in car crashes but also the kinds of people who can be in serious car crashes and die.”

Autonomous cars will probably be expensive when they first enter the market, so only wealthy people will own them, he said. Also, poorer and less educated people already die in car crashes more often than rich and educated people, according to Evans. He is concerned that the advent of autonomous cars will worsen existing disparities. 

“There's a lot of promise in autonomous vehicles but I think that we've got a long way to go to learn the right lessons to make this a safe, accessible, and fair technology,” Evans said.

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Elsa Partan is a producer and newscaster with CAI. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.