Weekly Brief: AV Tech Spawns Ethical Dilemma at US Border

Driverless car start-ups are installing LiDAR sensors along the South Texas border with Mexico, The New York Times has reported.

We’re not talking about autonomous dune buggies roving back and forth through the desert – at least not yet. For now the LiDAR sensors have been installed in fixed positions, 15 feet up in the air at the top of metal poles, as part of a pilot with US Border Control. That’s right, the same technology that helps self-driving cars see is now being used to pick out immigrants who are trying to enter the US without documentation.

Let’s set aside politics here for a moment and marvel at the world we’re all about to enter, one where sensors are everywhere, enabling a ubiquitous virtual network that monitors everything, tracks everything, hears everything and sees everything. This will unleash personalization the likes of which we’ve never experienced before. You get into a car and it immediately detects which family member is at the steering wheel and automatically adjusts seat position, audio preferences and lighting panels accordingly. You arrive at the grocery store and your refrigerator pings you a message, notifying you that you’re out of butter. The possibilities for new efficiencies, customization and ease in a connected world go on and on.

So, too, do the nightmare scenarios. Already the apps on our phones can eavesdrop through our microphones and hound us with custom tailored adverts we don’t want to read. That’s just the start of infringements that could be uncomfortable at best and scary or enraging at worst. Imagine if every time you broke the speed limit, I mean the second you went over, somebody knew about it. Imagine if an electronic ticket was automatically pinged to your email. Imagine if no matter where you went in public, sensors would be virtually ID-ing you, providing information to nearby businesses or authorities.

This may sound dystopian or hyperbolic but it’s the direction we’re headed and it highlights the ethical dilemma around the Internet of Things and the sensor revolution that comes with it. A dilemma that companies in the AV or connected car industry will have to deal with head on. As The New York Times pointed out, some driverless car start-ups aren’t comfortable with the ethics of their tech being used to ping undocumented immigrants fleeing political persecution or abject poverty at the US-Mexico border. You won’t see Waymo logos emblazoned on the virtual wall, for instance; Google had a 4,000-employee insurrection on its hands when it was revealed that it was helping the Department of Defense with artificial intelligence projects earlier this year. Google withdrew and it hasn’t gone near the trials with Border Patrol agents to date but other companies, like Quanergy, are already in the game. It’s business and ethics and opportunity and risk all jumbled up together … or just another week in the self-driving car industry.

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