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The Moral Challenges of Driverless Cars

The Moral Challenges of Driverless Cars, illustrative photo

Credit: Mercedes-Benz Cars

Every time a car heads out onto the road, drivers are forced to make moral and ethical decisions that impact not only their safety, but also the safety of others. Does the driver go faster than the speed limit to stay with the flow of traffic? Will the driver take her eyes off the road for a split second to adjust the radio? Might the driver choose to speed up as he approaches a yellow light at an intersection, in order to avoid stopping short when the light turns red?

All of these decisions have both a practical and moral component to them, which is why the issue of allowing driverless cars—which use a combination of sensors and pre-programmed logic to assess and react to various situations—to share the road with other vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists, has created considerable consternation among technologists and ethicists.


Tim Humphreys

How about we simply have a switch with two (or more) modes in each car and let the driver decide which one to select. One mode could be to maximise the safety of the occupant and another mode could be to minimise overall harm. This way it puts the ethical burden onto the occupant, and they will have to consider and live with the consequences for the rest of their lives.

Keith Kirkpatrick

Hi Tim,
Thanks for reading. What you're proposing is pretty much what we have now, with traditional vehicles. Drivers often make the choice between protecting themselves and minimizing harm to others in everyday driving, even if they aren't conscious of doing so.

However, I don't see manufacturers explicitly allowing humans to make the choice when using autonomous vehicles. My sense is that the manufacturers' view is that their programming and algorithms will be able to make a "better" decision than humans by minimizing the likelihood and severity of accidents in the first place via advanced sensors, as well as offering faster reaction times.

Should an accident occur, it's my hope that these sensing technologies (such as being able to accurately gauge the size, weight, speed and type of object) will inform the steering system as to the best course or action that minimizes damages to all parties. But, as many have pointed out, we have a long way to go until the systems can handle such challenges accurately, reliably, and consistently.

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