Written for Daily Hive by Frederick Blichert
With self-driving cars likely to arrive on the market in the not-too-distant future, Vancouver artist Vincent McCurley has developed a virtual reality (VR) simulation that asks “who drives the driver?”
When a crash is inevitable, how will self-driving cars respond, and how will they be programmed to make the ethical choices that human drivers are faced with? These are the main themes of Cardboard Crash, currently available for free from the National Film Board of Canada.
Cardboard Crash puts you in the front seat of a self-driving car rolling through a blocky world made of cardboard. As you make your way along a cliff-side highway overlooking the ocean, modelled on British Columbia’s Sea-to-Sky Highway, you’ll notice the boxy little child sitting with you on the commute home.
You soon take control of the car’s navigation system in the face an imminent collision and are asked to choose between veering left into a family, driving straight into an oncoming tanker truck, or turning right off the cliff. Then, after getting additional information from a lighthouse sensor offshore and a drone overhead, you’re asked to choose again.
“The piece tries to use virtual reality to almost create empathy for the machine,” said McCurley, pointing to the competing data that you’re fed to make your choice. Will the cars’ ethical algorithms be programmed according to the law, or according to insurance policies, or based on some other ethical framework?
“At the end of the day, they are being programmed by humans, and their ethical frameworks are being designed by human programmers,” said McCurley. We may take comfort in the human side of things, but it comes with its own challenges too, because there is no universal human code of ethics. “People’s ethics change depending on whether or not they’ve had a good breakfast in the morning, or a good sleep.”
And once your car plugs into a network, the possibilities are endless. McCurley wonders “whether it’s ethical to…pull information like our insurance policies, our occupations, our age, our criminal records, our social media profiles.”
The technology that McCurley shows us in Cardboard Crash isn’t here yet. The first generations of self-driving cars won’t be accessing this kind of information, or even recognizing the ethical choices at hand. But that could change, and soon. When that day comes, it’s not clear what our priorities will be. “I’d like society to make the decisions on the ethics of this technology rather than a couple of corporations making those decisions for us,” said McCurley.
McCurley describes Cardboard Crash as the culmination of his work on interactive documentaries, apps, and other VR projects as a creative technologist at the NFB. The piece started out as a public service announcement about distracted driving and has evolved, with McCurley aiming to make the best use of the technology as he developed the story.
The cardboard aesthetic also makes the most of the technology. Most mobile devices can’t support too much visual information, so McCurley used a “low-poly aesthetic,” which basically means reducing the number of objects on-screen and making them blocky to keep the visual information to a minimum. And it looks great. The story world is smooth and easy to navigate.
Cardboard Crash currently works on mobile phones and will soon be available on the Oculus Rift and Samsung Vive VR platforms. It was part of the Sundance Institute’s 2016 New Frontier Mobile VR lineup and recently won a national Digi Award for Mobile Entertainment.