Driverless Cars Spark Thorny Moral Dilemma

Nissan retrofitted as driverless carBEACON TRANSCRIPTAccording to a recent survey, most people agree that in a fatal crash, which would have killed many more pedestrians than passengers in a driverless car, the automated vehicle should sacrifice the lives of passengers. But respondents also agree on not wanting to buy one of those cars if the machines were ever programmed to do so.

Survey participants also said that they wouldn’t mind for others to purchase the cars, but they would personally not.

Jean-François Bonnefon, lead author of the survey and researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in France, noted that designing “ethical” self-driving vehicles has become one of the thorniest moral issues in AI research today.

Even though the scenario in the survey was purely hypothetical, real life situations could come to this when driverless cars hit the road in record numbers. Researchers said that they seek answers for these scenarios to include them when programming the vehicles.

Scientists are aware that even if they give the possibility to a human passenger to take that moral decision moments before the crash it may simply be not enough time for that passenger to take control of the machine.

We might wonder why AI researchers become so philosophical. Yet, their concerns are related to the principle that automated vehicles should make roads safer. In the U.S. alone, about 35,000 people lose their lives in car crashes each year. Millions more are injured or permanently disabled.

Co-author of the survey Azim Shariff explained that about 90 percent of accidents are linked to human error. But in the case of driverless cars, engineers expect to remove that factor and keep the risk of a car crash to a minimum.

Shariff believes that there are two types of obstacles that need to be overcome before driverless technology becomes mainstream. Some obstacles are technological while others are psychological.

The question survey respondents had to ask is very similar to the trolley problem, a moral problem often cited in ethics classes. In that scenario the operator of a trolley needs to choose between leaving the trolley on its current track and kill five workers who are unaware that the trolley is about to hit them or switch the trolley onto another track and kill a single worker there. And there is no possibility to break.

Watch the trolley problem here:

Image Source: Wikimedia