It’s a decade or two from now. You’re the sole passenger in an Autonomous Vehicle. Coming around a blind corner, the car is confronted with several pedestrians blocking the narrow road. Far faster than a human driver, the computer determines its only options are to hit the pedestrians or crash the car into a wall. Both options will likely result in casualties – it’s the pedestrians or you. How would you want the the car to act?

A study recently published in the journal Science surveyed people’s attitudes with this scenario in mind. Unsurprisingly, the authors found that a majority believed AVs should be programmed to take a utilitarian approach to such decision-making, taking the option that would result in the least number of casualties. Paradoxically, but unsurprisingly, many of those same respondents declared they would be less likely to buy a car programmed that way for fear that it might be less beneficial to their own welfare.

Utilitarianism – the greatest good for the greatest number – is a fine concept that feels morally right to most people. Unfortunately it breaks down in practice with the people who find themselves part of the minority who are adversely affected by an event or change. Think of those who object to proposed public housing when it’s in their neighbourhood.

The study’s authors conclude that utilitarian programming of AVs is likely to reduce sales and therefore slow adoption of a technology that will ultimately save thousands of lives currently lost due to driver human error. Not to mention the myriad other potential benefits of AVs, a few of which I have previously chronicled.

This finding is symptomatic of many new technologies and process innovations that could help society make great strides in areas like energy efficiency or public safety, but somehow miss their full potential. The root cause of their failure often lies in failing to understand human nature.

Take occupancy sensors for zoned lighting control in office buildings. Only illuminate areas that are in use and you can bank significant electricity savings while reducing carbon emissions. Sounds like a no brainer. Yet I’ve seen plenty of places where this technology has been installed but has since been turned off at the occupants’ request.

“The floor doesn’t feel right when the lights aren’t all on,” is one comment I’ve heard.

“If the lights aren’t on in the adjacent meeting room then I don’t get enough light at my desk.”

“I get distracted when I see lights going on and off out of the corner of my eye.”

And at night, when such a system could be most beneficial, it turns out the remaining handful of occupants are freaked out by the idea of being in a small pool of light surrounded by darkness.

“What if someone creeps up on me – how will I know,” they say, ignoring the fact that unless any intruder is extremely stealthy and slow-moving they’ll give away their location when the lights come on in their area!

It’s UB-NIMBY-ism!

One can see this phenomenon as another example of UB-NIMBY-ism: “utilitarianism, but not in my back yard.”

Which brings us to policies to combat climate change by reducing anthropological greenhouse gas emissions – an example of UB-NIMBY-ism on a global scale. The majority who acknowledge the science understand that the way to solve the problem is to reduce global emissions. Quickly. To something very close to zero.

Yet while a few in the affluent West have adopted the frugal lifestyles associated with minimising one’s carbon footprint, the vast majority have done very little (apart from perhaps being a little more vigilant about turning the lights off and maybe wearing a sweater rather than turning the heater on).

And at the end of the day, even if everybody adopted the most energy efficient practices and technologies overnight, it would still not knock emissions down to anywhere near the required level.

Because those sorts of changes tackle the demand side of the equation. In this case what’s needed are measures to tackle the supply side. Measures that can only be enacted by governments, like punitive carbon taxes, revoking fossil fuel extraction permits and mothballing coal-fired power plants (and on the more positive side, kickstarting investment in large scale renewable energy and grid storage).

And at government level UB-NIMBY-ism is seen in world leaders’ calls for urgent action at forums such as the Paris COP talks last year, followed by limited concrete policy announcements upon returning home. Because in the absence of collective agreements to adopt supply-side measures, unilateral action could harm their economies, shifting mining royalties offshore and lining some other country’s pockets instead, without achieving any any environmental benefit.

It’s a thorny issue, and despite the apparent success of Paris the world still seems to be waiting for a compelling tipping point; a burning platform that forces voters and politicians out of their apathy and lethargy and provokes real action on that global scale. Unfortunately climate change is not the type of issue that creates the necessary sense of urgency. Even a warming-fuelled super-storm causing major damage to one of the world’s great cities is relatively quickly forgotten amongst the many issues that seem more pressing to politicians and their constituents.

And so we are forced to celebrate incremental successes: a new milestone for renewables generation here; a slow decline on coal-fired power plants there. All too little, too late.

As such, society will need to adapt to the new climate it has brought upon itself, necessitating many innovative products and services to deal with issues of urban and coastal infrastructure, healthcare, disaster management, food production, water supply and so on. Let’s hope that the urgent adaptation challenges we will face and the funds that will be needed to implement them do not fall victim to UB-NIMBY-ism. Reviewing the rhetoric on coastal protection in the wake of this month’s East Coast storm, however, that seems unlikely.

David McEwen is a director at Adaptive Capability, a specialist consultancy that helps businesses assess strategic opportunities and risks in the face of disruptive challenges such as climate change.

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