Just who is driving this thing?


by Colin McIntosh About words: A blog from Cambridge Dictionaries

Do you remember Herbie the Love Bug? Herbie was a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle car in a string of Walt Disney movies. In typical Disney anthropomorphic style, Herbie goes his own way, falls in love, cries, plays jokes, and generally has a mind of his own.

While the new driverless cars, like those being trialled by Google at the moment, will probably never cry, they will take you places without you having to lift a finger. As with all new technologies, they bring a set of new words and meanings along with them, some of them new to the Cambridge Dictionary.

Driverless cars, also called self-driving cars or autonomous vehicles, can be programmed to take you where you want to go. They use GPS to reach their destination and detect where junctions and stop signs are, and sensors to judge distance, adjust speed, and avoid collisions.

Of course, unmanned vehicles have been around for a while. Robot vehicles are used in bomb disposal and scientific work in hostile environments, for example on other planets. Automatic parking is already with us. For those who panic at the thought of having to perform a parallel parking manoeuvre, automatic parking allows the car to be parked in a tight space with no effort on the part of the driver.

Self-driving cars have been described as sentient vehicles, although that description only really applies to Herbie, since sentient properly means “able to experience feelings”, like a human being. Driverless cars are actually robots. However, like robots, self-driving cars also have to be programmed to take appropriate moral decisions. No one wants to have a collision, but what happens if a car is faced with a situation where people will be injured unless avoiding action is taken that results in damage to property? Presumably cars will be programmed to place human life above material property. In fact, philosophy has become an important part of car design. Deontology is the part of philosophy that looks at moral duty, and deontological thinking will now have to be part of a car’s design process.

It may be that passing complete control over to the car will be a step too far for drivers trained the old way. In that case, a car with dual controls could be the answer. This would allow you to take over the controls when Herbie gets carried away and decides to follow his instincts.

Source: Just who is driving this thing? – About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog