The Trolley Problem? A self driving analogy.

Adam Cecchetti

August 28, 2016

By Adam Cecchetti

It started in Austin simply enough: a few 20-somethings partying in the back of a self-driving car on the way to an EDM festival. Each of the passengers signed their name on the seat in gold Sharpie as a memory of the night. By the end of the festival, there were so many signatures that the interior had to be replaced. The marketing team loved it, even as the maintenance team made a trip to the local hardware store for paint masks to protect from the fumes.

When pictures of the tagged car hit Instagram, a DC-local guerrilla group stealth-stickered dystopian murals on interior windows, rightly thinking many people at the upcoming election rally were sure to be riding frequently. The maintenance team was up all night peeling and scraping away the world's cheapest adhesive that Kinkos was legally allowed to sell.

The marketing team sponsored the A-list rides to and from the Emmys. After Snoop Dogg made his appearance "SnoopRiding" became a thing. The engineers responded by installing smoke detectors in all of the cars and reminding the user via the app that all car rides were non-smoking and carry a $500 cleaning fee. Now they ask the user to rate their last ride by smell.

In Tokyo, a local shop owner's child wanting to demonstrate "guerrilla async growth hacking" placed magnetic stickers on the side of every car they could find to advertise their takeout would be happily delivered right to your door. Not to be outdone, so did every other Maid Cafe in Meguro and Minato wards. In perfect respectful alignment the back quarter panel on every auto drive service in Japan has become the "local marketing approved area".

In Indonesia, pedicab drivers would occasionally use cattle prods to short out various sensor systems causing them to pull off the road. When the culprits were finally caught they claimed they were tired of the competition to their local tourist rides in Bali.

In Moscow a teenager died playing an extended game of chicken when they mistook a human driver for an auto-drive model.

In Vancouver, couples desperate for privacy got creative and chose to enjoy the particular freedoms self-driving cars offered. Within a few weeks, strut replacements were so frequent in North Van that exasperated engineers outfitted the cars with better weight and stability sensors. Designed to warn to users if they are causing too much turbulence in the vehicle, they will, on occasion, be set off by an unsupervised set of rowdy 10-year olds on the way to soccer practice.

A few arguments got out of hand. When the third rear passenger window needed to be replaced and the court wasn't sure who to call as a witness, that's when the internal cameras got added. No one liked the cameras. Everyone said they'd never ride in one again. The engineers that designed the systems hated them, the talking heads and social media ran with the story for weeks. Ridership was down 4% next quarter, and the stock dropped 2% on the news. But, maintenance costs fell to an all-time low, and the very next quarter, profits soared.

In Paris, someone realized that you could hide a small package in the battery recharge compartment. A few weeks later, someone missed a pickup in Madrid, and a family of five was left to explain the contraband to Interpol. The engineers removed every inch of spare compartments on the next version.

Aerodynamics and battery efficiency went up, but a new level of sterility was reached. The Rider Experience team argued desperately to make the rides feel more luxurious and inviting to new users. The CEO reminded them the product was a "transportation alternative," not a “personalized experience,” and if people wanted to make their commute feel more comfortable they ”could buy and operate their own personal vehicle”

A few quiet years passed between crises, and then the economy took a dip. Tech savvy but newly-homeless Millennials started jamming the GPS and Cellular signals to force the SUV models to park under bridges after drop-offs, thus becoming a warm bed for the night – at least until the heater drained the battery. The vehicles usually came back undamaged, but the smell could be difficult to remove on occasion. Every now and again someone will pull the disabled SUV, family and all, onto a flatbed and tow it away. The recovery team now has the odd legal authority of a towing company combined with a security guard.

Eventually, someone in Portland got the bright idea to try and have a vehicle deliver a bomb to the local police station after they got pulled over on their fixie; not much for the Portland traffic officers to do now with 99.892% of traffic laws obeyed with the infuriatingly boring precision of an algorithm. The weight sensors went crazy and it pulled over near a gas station. This captured a global news cycle as it was the first time the police were in a direct stand-off with an algorithm that just wanted to do its job and deliver its "passenger". The clip repeated for weeks: the first time a robot had disarmed another robot on live television.

When the news cycle passed an engineer looked at their boss and asked "Hey remember that trolley ethical problem? Did we ever figure that out?"