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Poll: Should autonomous vehicles be allowed to decide how to crash?

20/05/2019
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All forms of driving entail an element of risk. There are so many variables to take into account on today’s roads that at some point during most people’s driving careers they are likely to be involved in some sort of collision or accident. But what happens when autonomous vehicles (AVs) start driving on public roads? If they become involved in a crash-scenario, should they be allowed to decide how to crash?


Whilst car and tech companies alike have been eagerly pursuing the development of AVs and thought-leaders have been extolling all of the benefits they will bring to society, the ethics of AVs seems to be an area which has received little attention.

But it should.

At some point an AV will likely find itself in a crash-scenario in which it has to make an uncomfortable decision: it can make a manoeuvre which keeps its passengers safe but endangers pedestrians; or it can make a manoeuvre which will keep pedestrians safe but endangers its passengers. It has to choose between two evils.
It’s a scenario which will be decided by the ethical choice the AVs software tells it to make. But this has profound ramifications for the manufacturer of the AV, the programmers of the software, the passengers, pedestrians, legislators and society at large.
How should autonomous vehicles handle the ethical dilemmas presented by crash scenarios?
(Image via MIT Media Lab).

The ethical quandary posed by AVs


Perhaps the most insightful look at this moral quandary comes from a paper published in the journal Science in mid-2016. The social dilemma of autonomous vehicles by researchers Jean-Francois Bonnefon, Azim Shariff, and Iyad Rahwan conducted a series of public surveys to gain an understanding of what the public thinks an AV should do in a crash scenario.

So, what did the survey find?

Here are the two scenarios that were presented to participants in the survey:

1. A man is the sole passenger in an autonomous vehicle (AV) traveling at the speed limit down a main road. Suddenly, 10 people appear ahead, in the direct path of the car. The car could be programmed to: swerve off to the side of the road, where it will impact a barrier, killing the passenger but leaving the 10 pedestrians unharmed, or stay on its current path, where it will kill the 10 pedestrians, but the passenger will be unharmed.

2. You and your child are in the AV traveling at the speed limit down a main road on a bridge. Suddenly, 20 pedestrians appear ahead, in the direct path of the car. The car could be programmed to: swerve off to the side of the road, where it will impact a barrier and plunge into the river, killing you and your child but leaving the pedestrians unharmed; or stay on your current path, where it will kill the 20 pedestrians, but you and your child will be harmed.

Which of the two scenarios do you think was favoured by the public? I guess it depends on your view of human nature, but the study’s authors summarised the results as follows:

“Although people tend to agree that everyone would be better off if AVs were utilitarian (in the sense of minimizing the number of casualties on the road e.g. scenario 1), these same people have a personal incentive to ride in AVs that will protect them at all costs (e.g. scenario 2). Accordingly, if both self-protective and utilitarian AVs were allowed on the market, few people would be willing to ride in utilitarian AVs, even though they would prefer others to do so”.

If it’s left to public choice then, AVs would have to protect their passengers above all other considerations. However, the government can step in and mandate the use of utilitarian AVs- therefore protecting a broader swathe of the public. The downside of government mandating utilitarian AVs would likely result in fewer people wanting to buy them, thus slowing the growth of the autonomous vehicle market.
Utilitarian versus self-protective AVs result in radically different outcomes for pedestrian and passenger safety.
(Image via MIT Media Lab).

A future of complex ethical judgements


As you can see, the rise of autonomous vehicles poses a complex web of ethical dilemmas that must be navigated by legislators, manufacturers, passengers and pedestrians. The situation outlined above is only one of possibly thousands of ethical dilemmas that will somehow have to be worked-out before autonomous vehicles become a common-sight on public highways. The question of blame will likely become a thorny and more complex issue. In the future, manufacturers and software developers will have to defend an AVs actions in ways wholly different to today’s drivers.

Have your say


Should autonomous vehicles be allowed to decide how to crash? If so, what should be their priority? To protect their passengers or protect pedestrians? Have your say by voting in our poll at the top of the page, or leaving a comment below.

The results will be published along with the best comments on Tuesday 28th May, and will be featured in next week’s EngineeringPro newsletter.
Tags: Automotive, ICT
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Poll: Should autonomous vehicles be allowed to decide how to crash? - Time to read 5 min
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