Caution: This Car is a Consequentialist

The Technology expo Mobile World Congress was held this week, and amongst shiny new phones and gadgets, a number of reveals pertained to the future of motoring. Across the board firms are leading with the idea of interconnected devices and the ‘Internet of Things’, and the automobile industry is no different.

AT&T showed how to control a ‘smart home’ from your ‘connected car’, whilst Visa wants us to use our wheels to order pizza. Tech and automobile companies are converging and partnering, with both Apple and Google racing ahead to provide dashboard operating systems. Of course, Google’s most distinctive contribution to motoring so far is still its cartoon-like driverless cars; a potentially transformative sector other companies are piling into.

This week Renault Nissan announced plans to bring an autonomous, connected car to market by 2016. This wouldn’t be as far down the line as a fully driverless car, capable only (pending regulatory approval) of driving autonomously in traffic jams. Whilst Renault Nissan’s head predicted that autonomous motorway travel is not far off, moving beyond that point is far more difficult because we simply can’t currently ensure that autonomous vehicles make rational decisions in an emergency.

Questions of which emergency choices would be rational, and which, indeed, would be most ethical to take are some of the most interesting in the pursuit of automated transport. Such cases bear a strong resemblance to the classic Trolley Problem thought experiment:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: 1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. 2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

In philosophy this problem (along with permutations involving fat men being shoved off bridges and looping tracks) is used to eke out consequentialist v. deontological intuitions — should you always act to save the many, or is it wrong to treat people as a means to and end? — as well as moral distinctions between forseeing and intending a death, and killing and letting die.

The ethics of driverless cars in this sense are particularly juicy. Unlucky drivers may experience their own trolley-like problems: should they swerve into the next lane or aim instead for the pavement? Generally, though, we’re pretty forgiving of a bad call made in a split second and under extreme duress, and wouldn’t really consider a particular choice an ‘ethical’ one.

However, what driverless cars do in a dangerous situation will be thought far more significant. Even if cars ‘learn’ with road time and experience, their instinctive behaviour will already be premeditated and decided; written in as part of the car’s program and consciously chosen by a coder.

This predetermination of the car’s behavior (and by extension, its moral philosophy) makes trolley-related problems both an ethical and legal minefield. Regardless (or perhaps, because,) of how effective driverless cars may be in reducing overall accidents, lawsuits are likely to be significant, and expensive. Whether or not a car is automated to minimize total casualties or programmed to never hit an innocent bystander, there will likely come a time when someone asks ‘why was my loved one already marked out to die in this situation?’ Applying different moral codes will inevitably lead to very different ideas of what it is acceptable for a driverless car to do.

Picking the ‘right’ ethical choice in a range of hypothetical situations will therefore be important, especially if the deployment of driverless cars relies on political and populist goodwill. There’s no end of considerations — is a forseen death acceptable? Is a child’s life more valuable than an adult’s? How do the number and ages of individuals weigh against one another? Should a driverless car prioritize the safety of its passengers over pedestrians, or should it try to minimize third party harm? Should public and private vehicles act differently? Ultimately it may be governments who insist on taking these decisions, but that doesn’t make them any easier.

There’s a number of interesting articles on this sort of thing, and  it will be interesting to hear futher development and discussion of these issues as driverless technology evolves. However, one solution to ‘choosing’ the right outcomes which I found interesting, posited by Owen Barder, would be to let the market decide and with each person to purchase a car programmed with their own moral philosophy. This may not work out in practice, but I do like the idea of a ‘Caution: This Car is a Consequentialist’ bumper sticker.

 

 

Decriminalising possession is not enough Mr. Clegg

Decriminalising the possession of drugs is better than not decriminalising it. But we’re sorry to say that it’s not actually enough: it is also necessary to legalise the production and supply of them.

Nick Clegg will today press ahead with plans to decriminalise possession of all drugs – despite charities warning the move will wreck thousands of lives.

The Lib Dem leader is to pledge that his party will bring forward plans to ensure those caught with drugs for ‘personal use’ will no longer face criminal prosecution. Instead, the maximum penalty would be a fine.

The move covers the powerful ‘skunk’ strain of cannabis and hard drugs such as crack cocaine and heroin, as well as ‘soft’ drugs including marijuana and amphetamines.

Not jailing people for ingesting the stimulant of their choice is of course a good thing. If we don’t own our own bodies and cannot decide what to put into them then we are not free. And freedom and liberty are the aim and goal, of course.

However, this is not enough, welcome though it is. For there are two problems with drugs. The first is that above, the issue of liberty. The second is the issue of safety. It’s all very well to say that we may partake as we wish, subject only to fines. But only with the legalisation of manufacture and supply can there be any form of quality control.

It’s worth thinking back to the adulteration of food in Victorian times. The first investigations into what was actually going into processed foods turned up in The Lancet in the late 1840s and early 1850s. And there was most certainly all sorts of very dodgy stuff being added to food. Sometimes knowingly and sometimes not: we seem to recall people using cadmium salts to make sweets look pretty which really isn’t something to be recommmended but they didn’t know that then.

Legislation to deal with such adulteration really only started in the 1870s. By which time the problem was largely solved. For the information about the adulteration led to producers creating brands which promised no such adulteration. And consumers bought them on such promises. It’s not from quite the same time or place but this is akin to Heinz tomato soup conquering the world. Early canning of soups was slightly hit and miss. Heinz kept better control of that process than other competing manufacturers and thus killed fewer people. This became generally known, the brand became a marker of quality and global domination beckoned.

To solve our second problem with drugs we need to allow those same processes free rein. Brands must be allowed, brands that claim to be free of brick dust, to be of a certain purity and also of a certain dose. Tax the heck out of them as well, of course, but legalisation, not just decriminalisation, is the solution to both of our problems about drugs.

Economic Nonsense: 19. Corporation tax is paid by businesses

It is always attractive to the political classes to impose taxes on business so that people can benefit from the spending this makes possible. Corporation Tax is one of these whose name suggests that it is paid by corporations. Many people suppose that this involves taking money from companies and transferring it via government into services for ordinary people. They suppose that corporations just shrug and accept the loss in profits this involves.

This is a naïve myth. The tax levied by government is part of the price that people, not companies, pay. When you buy beer the price of your pint includes the tax the brewer has to pay to government. When you buy whisky it is even more, about 80% of the nominal price. The same is true for petrol and other fuels. VAT is included in what you are charged for goods and services.

The point is that Corporation Tax is paid by people, not by corporations. The tax that companies are charged forms part of their costs, and is reflected in the costs of producing their goods and services. Studies show that about three-fifths of the impact of Corporation Tax falls on the workers, reducing the wages they could otherwise be paid. Of the remainder, some falls on shareholders by way of reduced dividends, making it harder for the firm to attract capital to create more jobs. Some falls on customers, passed on to them in the form of higher prices, which lower demand for the firm’s products.

Corporation tax thus acts to curb economic activity, hits growth, and makes people poorer than they would otherwise have been.

If firms tried to absorb the tax without passing it on in lower wages and increased prices, as some critics suggest they could, they would become less profitable and less attractive to investors, who would in turn respond by investing somewhere else instead.

The five things you need to know about TTIP

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a free trade agreement currently being negotiated between the EU and the US. I think it’s a good idea. Here’s what you should know about it:

1. Abolishing tariffs is only a small part of TTIP.

Tariffs are generally low between the EU and US, but for some sectors they are very high. The EU currently imposes a 10% duty on car imports from the US, and the US imposes tariffs as high as 40% on some clothes from the EU, like shoes. Getting rid of those high sectoral tariffs will allow for greater economic specialisation, and the EU and US economies are so large that even reducing small tariffs overall would boost wealth levels a bit.

2. The biggest costs to trade are from so-called ‘non-tariff barriers’, and getting rid of these could have a big effect.

Most of TTIP is designed to harmonise regulation where there is redundant double-regulation (or ‘regulatory incoherence’) of firms operating in both the EU and the US. For instance, cars may be just as safe in the US and the EU (or not – nobody’s sure yet), but have to adhere to completely different safety requirements to achieve that. Harmonising car safety regulations could make it cheaper to build cars without reducing car safety at all. Because of different rules about egg washing that don’t seem to make a difference to actual safety, US eggs couldn’t legally be sold in the UK and vice versa. Some regulations are simply designed to make it more expensive for foreign firms to sell goods, to protect native firms. Harmonising some of these rules should reduce costs substantially.

Different regulatory regimes might allow for more experimentation, but the feedback mechanisms involved in regulation are so fuzzy that this kind of ‘discovery process’ rarely actually takes place.

3. The economic gains from TTIP could be pretty substantial.

The CEPR estimates that a successful TTIP that removed a lot of these ‘non-tariff barriers’ as well as all existing tariffs would cause an increase to EU GDP by €120bn (0.5% of GDP) and US GDP by €95bn (0.4% of GDP) in total. That’s modest, but would translate into an extra £400 annually for British households. 90% of those GDP gains would come from non-tariff measure cuts.

4. The only regulations that TTIP will prevent in the future are ones that discriminate against foreign firms.

This will include rules that mean that US and EU governments will have to consider foreign firms for public procurement in certain areas (but not publicly-funded healthcare, social services, education or water services). In general the EU is extremely restrictive about the impact TTIP can have on public services. EU governments can organise public services so that only one monopoly provider supplies it (eg, the NHS), and they can regulate whatever they deem to be ‘public services’ at any level of government. The only exception is where an EU government has already opened up a sector to foreign firms (ie, to avoid firms that have already invested from losing their money). This is a pity, I think – I’d like to see EU states sign up to an agreement that stopped them from discriminating against foreign firms in all areas. But TTIP is not that agreement.

5. The Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanisms in TTIP – the so-called ‘secret courts’ – are nothing new.

Pretty much every free trade agreement signed around the world includes an ISDS provision, which allows firms to challenge states that renege on their part of the deal. Since 1975 the UK has signed 90 ISDS treaties, and 3,400 exist around the world. In that time the UK investors have brought 43 claims against other states. Only two have ever been brought against the UK and both were unsuccessful. What’s more, ISDSes cannot compel a state to change its laws, only to pay compensation to firms if it has broken its treaty obligations. It might seem pointless to have this – the UK and the US both have strong rules of law. But TTIP also includes countries like Greece, Hungary and Romania which have much less reliable judicial systems.

Tribute to Prof John Hibbs

The late John Hibbs was a transport specialist who was a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and published seminal works with us. A group of his friends and colleagues have put together what they intended to be a 90th birthday tribute book, but alas it became a memorial to him when he died 6 months before then.

“John Hibbs – His journey by bus, coach and train” is a celebration of his life and achievements. It is more than that, though, because the personality of the man emerges through its pages and through what people who knew him say about him. He was a remarkable man, one who changed transport policy. His scholarship and his determined advocacy helped liberate bus transport and free it from a virtual state monopoly. But he also had an impact on train transport, and pioneered road pricing. He was committed to competition and deregulation, and put their stamp firmly on the ASI’s transport output.

We shall miss him at our seminars and conferences, and this tribute reminds us why. It was an extraordinary life and it is entirely fitting that this book, compiled and edited by Michael Goldstein and Cyrrhian Macrae, puts that life on the record for others to admire and appreciate.

John Hibbs – His Journey by Bus, Coach and Train by Michael Goldstein and Cyrrhian Macrae, is published by Twig Books ISBN 978-1-907953-63-7 £9.99.

 

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