Internet on the Dashboard: When Ethics is Impossible

What rationalizations does a computer company use to justify the development of a new dashboard device that is certain to cause accidents and take lives? The same ones, I suspect, that are employed by auto manufacturers to justify selling cars with the feature.

One rationalization is a variation on the “It’s not my fault!” excuse: nobody will force the public to buy the cars, and the feature isn’t dangerous unless it’s misused, so the car company isn’t culpable when people die. Another rationalization is, “If I don’t do it, someone else will,” a false justification but an accurate statement of fact. If the public wants something in their cars, they will buy cars from the first carmaker that provides it. And because corporations are required to make money, an ethical manufacturer that eschews this desired but dangerous feature for moral reasons only accomplishes one thing: fewer sales.

Just as researchers seem to have concluded that almost anything we do while driving makes us less competent drivers, just as the states are finally beginning to crack down on using cell phones and text-messaging behind the wheel, Ford and Audi are about to unveil models that include computer screens and internet access. Meanwhile, the New York Times reports, technology giants like Intel and Google see bringing the information superhighway onto the literal highway as the next gravy train. “This is irresponsible at best and pernicious at worst,” the Times story quotes Nicholas A. Ashford, a professor of technology and policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as saying. “Unfortunately and sadly, it is a continuation of the pursuit of profit over safety — for both drivers and pedestrians.”

Indeed it is. The existence of those rationalizations, however, and the fact that the technological innovation must be combined with user recklessness to make inevitable the fatal concoction, guarantee that there is no way, ever, that corporations dedicated to competing in the marketplace and making profit for shareholders will decide, “No, we shouldn’t do this. It isn’t necessary, and people will definitely die because of it. Nope, it’s just the wrong thing to do, no matter how much money we can make from it. Yes, we know it is 100% legal, and that the money we can make off of it might make the difference between us having a profitable year and one that is so bad our bonuses won’t buy an assorted jellies pack. Doesn’t matter. It’s wrong, and we won’t do it.”

Capitalism, in other words, demands an unethical result. That is not always true, as the far Left insists, but it is sometimes true, and this is one of those times. An ethical decision is literally impossible, given a corporation’s function. The best it can do is the pathetic warning Audi will have on its system:

“Please only use the online services when traffic conditions allow you to do so safely.”

Yeah, that will work. Conscience clear!

Let’s think about these systems and their victims the next time Glenn Beck or Marc Levin or the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is proclaiming the evils of free market regulation. Only regulation can stop this technology steamroller before it kills people. It’s very simple: just make it illegal to have computer screens on the dashboard, where drivers will be tempted to watch them. Who knows? Maybe the executives of Intel and Ford will be relieved. In the 1960s, automakers got together and begged Congress to mandate seatbelts in all cars. They knew the devices would save lives; they also knew that the public found them a nuisance. If one automaker had seatbelts in all models as an ethical obligation, the competitor that wanted to “give the public what it wants” (no seatbelts) would sell all the cars. The automakers couldn’t coordinate the installing of seatbelts in every car, for that would be illegal anti-competitive behavior. They couldn’t be ethical without a law. The same is true now, in the case of dashboard access to the internet.

Will it happen? I suspect a lot of people will die before it does. Those tech companies have a lot of money to lobby with, and even many of the liberal, anti-free market Senators and Representatives that Glenn Beck hates so much can be amazingly broad-minded when the campaign check is in the mail.

When ethics fails, law has to step in. We know that ethics can’t prevail in this situation. There is no excuse for the law not stepping in now.

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