Virtual reality experience questions the ethics of self-driving cars

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      It’s official: Google and Tesla have created fully-functioning, self-driving cars. In a feat of engineering, both companies have developed vehicles that require the rider only to sit quietly in the driving seat. Never needing to touch the brakes or the wheel, the computer decides autonomously how to direct the car.

      While advocates of the technology say that it will enhance mobility for the disabled and elderly, reduce traffic congestion, and—supposedly—decrease crashes, we still reckon it’s a particularly terrifying prospect. Ever had that moment where your laptop freezes for a second? Exactly.

      Although technical issues may be a concern for many, Vancouver virtual reality developer and designer Vincent McCurley is more worried about the ethical implications of handing decision-making to cars. Every time a person gets behind the wheel, they make life and death choices. As a vehicle in front brakes abruptly, drivers make a snap judgement: stop or swerve. At a right turn on a traffic light, pedestrians must be avoided. As a cyclist veers into a driver’s lane, drivers must respond immediately.

      Addressing the complexity of automotive decisions, McCurley developed Cardboard Crash: a VR experience that reflects on the difficult moral judgements made on the road, and whether car computers are up to the task.

      The piece’s trailer depicts a horrifying scenario. Driving along a two-lane road with a child in your vehicle, an obstruction suddenly appears in front of you. The voiceover asks the VR user to select an action: veer left and collide with a four person family, drive straight into the trailer truck (which, it is suggested, contains hazardous material), or turn right and fall off the cliff. Becoming the car’s computer, the viewer experiences time in slow-motion, confronting a decision where there is plenty of data, but no easy answer.

      Bringing his subject matter to life with a creative and engaging interface, McCurley’s brainchild has just scooped a Digi Award for Mobile Entertainment from the National Film Board of Canada. The NFB is one of the world’s leading content hubs, generating interactive documentaries, animations, mobile content, installations, and participatory experiences, and oversaw Cardboard Crash’s production.

      McCurley’s win follows hot on the heels of his work’s selection for the DocLab program of 2015's International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, and Cardboard Crash was picked to be screened at the New Frontier section of Sundance earlier this year.

      The preview trailer for the VR experience can be viewed here.