Self Driving Cars and Walking While Black

by Glenn R. Geist

Black pedestrians matter and someone is going to have to explain why the current crop of self-driving cars is more likely to hit dark skinned pedestrians than light skinned ones.

Now we know any problem can have only one causal factor, and we’ve been awakened to the fact that privilege is the first chapter of that story. Do we have to conclude there’s white bias or white privilege at work here? What else could it be?

A new study from the Georgia Institute of Technology finds that automated vehicles have a harder time distinguishing dark skinned persons from the background than those privileged with more reflective faces. Can an algorithm have a bias? Can sensors be bigoted? What else can explain it? Programmers and electrical engineers have an inborn bias against black people that they unconsciously transfer to their software? Sounds right.

But what do we do? Should those of us with darker complexions wear whiteface or reflective clothing when crossing the street? That’s a bit much to ask, I would think and the responsibility must rest with the manufacturer anyway. They’re the ones pushing these machines for whom nobody’s life matters.

Or maybe we could just stop the foolishness and go back to making people actually pay attention to driving and looking where they’re going. That way we can go back to choosing whom or what we run down in the street.  I have some suggestions, but that’s for another day.

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Posted by on March 8, 2019. Filed under COMMENTARY/OPINION. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry
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6 Responses to Self Driving Cars and Walking While Black

  1. Michael John Scott Reply

    March 8, 2019 at 10:18 am

    I think in 20 years there might be as many self-driving cars as there are regular cars. They are here to stay.

  2. Glenn R. Geist Reply

    March 8, 2019 at 10:41 am

    In 20 years it will be moot, at least for me. Perhaps the technology will improve enormously, but I think enormously is the important word. Show me a car that can distinguish between objects in the road – is that a paper bag or piece of tire? What risk do I take to avoid hitting that cat – or how much if it’s a squirrel? Will it know to avoid that darker central piece of asphalt if it’s been hot and dry but it’s just starting to rain? An experienced driver can anticipate and predict better than a machine that has to react only when the problem has begun.

    I worry even more about 18 wheelers on mountain roads. And as I said, flying cars have been “any day now” for 80 years.

  3. Neil Bamforth Reply

    March 8, 2019 at 11:53 am

    As a recently retired driving instructor… Putting death on the roads as I called it… I can only concur.

    If a car hits me and I’m able afterwards, I would like to thump the driver. Who the hell can I thump if there isn’t one???

    • Glenn R. Geist Reply

      March 9, 2019 at 9:08 am

      But you can sue the manufacturer and perhaps the driver needs to take a wee bit of blame for watching porn on his phone or taking a nap. Some safety item that might send you to jail if you use it!

  4. Bill Formby Reply

    March 8, 2019 at 4:54 pm

    I seem to remember a query back about the time I was getting my license to drive about an animal in the road. Do you try to dodge it and risk an accident with another vehicle or hold to your path and hope the animal gets out of its way on its own. Back then, of course, most roads were smallish, two land affairs so choices were really limited. Once while driving up to “the country” where my uncle lived my step father tried to avoid a deer and ended up putting us into a road side ditch. He stood there beside the car cursing the deer about getting in the way. I remember wondering if he might have thought the deer did that on purpose. Cars back then were really solidly built and this was an old 49 Chevrolet that closely resembled a tank. Other than a bent bumper it was no worse off than before it went into the ditch. A tow truck pulled us out for five bucks and we were on our way again. In today’s cars that would have been a major disaster. but not back then.

  5. Glenn R. Geist Reply

    March 9, 2019 at 9:09 am

    I knew a guy who, 20 years after hitting a deer near Green Bay, Wisconsin was still limping. Better the ditch by far. A deer through the windshield can kill you

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