Driverless Vehicle Dilemma: Who Should Your Car Kill If Things Go Bad?

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
driverless vehicle dilemma who should your car kill if things go bad

We’re told the future will bring us a blissful, autonomous driving experience that allows us to enjoy the scenery as we read our tablets and enjoy a Venti Macchiato, free of the burden of driving decisions and liability.

Now, for the less happy stuff: who should your safety-minded car kill if it’s forced to make an autonomous Sophie’s Choice-style decision — an occupant or a pedestrian?

A study published in the journal Science tackled that question, with researchers posing various scenarios to 1,900 participants via an online survey. The results show our sense of moral duty is matched by our sense of self-preservation.

In the first scenario, respondents were asked to imagine themselves riding in a driverless car, when suddenly 10 pedestrians materialize in the middle of the road. They could choose from two outcomes: kill the 10, or swerve off the road and kill the passenger. Over three-quarters (76 percent) of respondents said the moral choice was to let the passenger get it.

One death is better than 10, right? Most would agree, but people are less likely to make the proper moral choice when it’s themselves or their loved ones in danger.

In another scenario, “respondents were asked to indicate how likely they would be to buy an AV programmed to minimize casualties (which would, in these circumstances, sacrifice them and their co-rider family member), as well as how likely they would be to buy an AV programmed to prioritize protecting its passengers, even if it meant killing 10 or 20 pedestrians.”

Guess what? Participants chose to look out for Number One. The future might be high-tech, but it isn’t free of ethical conflicts. Another scenario showed people aren’t willing to sacrifice a passenger to save a single pedestrian life.

Driverless vehicles are in their infancy, so the issue isn’t a big one with the general public. But it might be one day.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Karl Iagnemma, CEO of software company nuTonomy (which develops autonomous vehicle technology), said the emerging industry is too busy working out the bugs to worry about moral dilemmas.

Existing driverless car technology can’t tell “a baby stroller from a grandmother from a healthy 21-year-old,” he said.

Besides showing us how fractured our psychology is, the study showed that enthusiasm for driverless cars is a pretty niche thing. Who gets excited about autonomous vehicles? Young men, apparently. With some exceptions, women and older people aren’t interested.

[Source: Wall Street Journal, Science] [Image: Volvo Cars]

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3 of 49 comments
  • Lorenzo Lorenzo on Jun 26, 2016

    Why debate? It's so simple: the car should be set to protect its own passengers. We have laws, lawyers, and insurance companies to hash out those liability details. with the autonomous computer absolving the driver of personal responsibility, nobody goes to jail, it's strictly a financial compensation issue. OTOH, in medieval times, animals were held criminally negligent. If a horse pulling a wagon reared up and the wagon overturned, killing the owner, the horse would be put on trial and hanged if found guilty of murdering its owner! Driving schools don't tell you about those early traffic laws, but the principle should be applied: the control module that kills should get the the electric chair. Those modules that learn from experience might get the wrong idea, like people do.

    • Shaker Shaker on Jun 29, 2016

      "OTOH, in medieval times" If that cart ran over someone's legs, crushing them, they would bring the poor soul to someone like Theodoric of York, who would recommend an immediate bloodletting to treat the condition. sorry - "Medieval" brought that to my diseased mind. :-)

  • Shaker Shaker on Jun 28, 2016

    Interesting too would be the ability of the autonomous vehicle to protect the occupants from being rear-ended by a non-autonomous vehicle while performing the actuarial meat-grinding algorithm to protect the most "beneficial" meat bags... Pedestrian 1: YOLL: 10 PROD 0.2 FIN +340k SOEC RANK 0.5 Occupant 1: YOLL 30 PROD 0.85 FIN - 260k SOEC RANK 0.9 etc, etc. Could get interesting... :-)

  • Inside Looking Out This is actually the answer to the question I asked not that long ago.
  • Inside Looking Out Regarding "narrow windows" - the trend is that windows will eventually be replaced by big OLED screens displaying some exotic place or may even other planet.
  • Robert I have had 4th gen 1996 model for many years and enjoy driving as much now as when I first purchased it - has 190 hp variant with just the right amount of power for most all driving situations!
  • ToolGuy Meanwhile in Germany...
  • Donald More stuff to break god I love having a nanny in my truck... find a good tuner and you can remove most of the stupid stuff they add like this and auto park when the doors open stupid stuff like that