Ethics is hardly, if ever, the starting point of a conversation about automated vehicles. The truth is that in the world of automated vehicles ethics can be something that is often overlooked or forgotten about entirely, seemingly taking a backseat in discussion. In this blog post however I hope to rectify this immediately because after reading an article last week, ethics in autonomous vehicles have been the only topics that I have been researching. Pulling no punches, the article in question looks at Mercedes-Benz as the first car manufacturer to release their software information and brings up a rather blunt initial question: in the event of a unavoidable crash would you want your new self-driving vehicle to prioritize your own life as the owner of the vehicle or the lives of several innocent children? In so many words the scenario is broached like this: suppose you were in an autonomous vehicle and a car was on the wrong side of the road. The software driving the car now has a decision to make: it can either swerve left into oncoming traffic, putting you in immediate danger or, option two, swerve the car to the right onto the sidewalk and potentially harm a group of children walking home from school. The decision is not an easy one, nor is it one to be made lightly.
Regardless, as per the article Mercedes has now given their answer to this question: they will swerve to the right and run over the group the children on their way home from school. Now to some people this may be the clear decision to make in this situation but some may still be wondering exactly why Mercedes has gone in this direction when programming the software for their autonomous vehicles. To help understand we will take a look at a moral issue very closely associated with this dilemma, the “Trolley Problem”. The Trolley Problem is a thought experiment developed by Philippa Foot in 1967 which involved a trolley coming down a road where men were currently working. If the trolley stays straight on its current path, it will kill five people on the tracks, however if you switch a lever, the trolley will instead go down a different path only killing one person. The main question raised is obvious: what is the right decision to make in this situation? This has been the moral dilemma as we’ve understood it for many decades, however now car manufacturers have to address this issue with a whole new layer of complexity added to the equation. Below this paragraph I’ve included a video to help explain the idea of this problem before we go any farther to help clarify any questions you may have.
As I’m sure most of you could probably have concluded by now, in the real world of self-driving cars this problem is more than just an ethical dilemma, it’s a PR bomb waiting to go off. Just think about the car companies that will soon be designing and programming the new autonomous vehicles of the future and which car you would rather drive, the one that prioritized your own personal safety at all times or the one that prioritized others before you; I know which I’d rather drive. The fact of the matter is that if Mercedes-Benz (or any other automotive company for that matter) prides themselves on customer satisfaction it would make absolutely no sense to have cars programmed not to prioritize customer safety. Essentially, (under the assumption that there would still be automotive accidents) Mercedes-Benz would effectively be designing “death cars” in the eyes of their customers, not a very good business strategy at all. Looking at another article similar questions are brought up revolving around the difference between a car and a motorcycle: is it better to hit a car or a motorcycle in this situation? The unfortunate fact is that all this is a catch 22 situation, not helped by the fact that right now there is no law in place to lead the car manufacturers and developers in the legally “right” direction. Therefore, there is no question that it makes the most sense that the manufacturers are taking the Mercedes-Benz approach and developing with the customer in mind. What are your thoughts on this situation? Should automotive companies be taking this kind of approach in the future or is there perhaps a better solution?