Autonomous vehicles or self-driving cars has shown various advantage comparing with traditional vehicles, especially in automated trucks industries. Tremendous investment and research have been done by automobile manufactures and AI companies.
This article is considering an ethical thought experiment, which developed from the “trolley problem”. Imagine you are driving/sitting in an autonomous vehicle with your partner on a highway. Suddenly, some heavy object falls off the truck in front of you and you cannot stop in time. There are other vehicles, a motorcycle and another car by your sides which boxed you in.
You, or the self-driving system, needs to make a decision in a second.
1. Press the brake and stay in your lane. This will make the car hit the fallen object and may cause injury on you and your partner.
2. Swerve to either left or right to hit other vehicles. This could minimize the damage on yourself but would hurt others.
Press the brake and stay in your lane.
Whatever actions taken by human here, they can be classified as reaction. But for the self-driving system, it becomes an ethical decision made by the programmers.
For ethical reasons, autonomous driving systems should be designed to give priority to braking in such situations. While crashing a motorcycle into a side lane is a decision that can minimize damage, the choice is favorable for vehicle manufacturers, because this could guarantee their customers’ safety.
In contrast, the choice of slamming on the brakes may increase the driver’s own risk, but it can avoid involving irrelevant person into the accident. From the perspective of morality, this choice is obviously more suitable for the design of the automatic driving system.
This involves a moral theory: The Kantian ethic. The Kantian Theory is a kind of duty ethics, which can be used to determine whether an action is considered morally right or not. A core notion in Kantian Theory is autonomy, that is to say, the autopilot system should automatically comply with moral responsibility when responding. The system needs to make ethical decisions to get “good will”. The good will is a central notion in Kantian ethics. It means the actin should follow a categorical imperative. In this case, compliance with traffic regulations is the so-called categorical imperative. This is a rule, the starting point of all decisions of the automatic driving system should be to abide by traffic rules. As long as this rule is met, good will can be obtained. An emergency brake is certainly more legal than a sudden crossing of a lane into another vehicle. In any case, it is necessary to be responsible for hitting other vehicles, and the responsibility for braking is much smaller for the reason of the front car. In addition, according to Kant’s ethics, good will can be obtained by obeying the only principle, that is, obeying traffic laws. In other words, as long as the traffic rules are complied with, safety should be guaranteed. The motorcycles on other sides follow traffic rules and drive normally. If they abide by the sole criterion, but are still threatened by the safety of life, it is contrary to Kant’s ethics.
To sum up, braking is a more ethical option than hitting motorcycle in other lanes. The automatic driving system should be programmed to brake in such a situation.
Swerve to either left or right to hit other vehicles
Other ethics, such as utilitarianism theory, may result in the alternative decision on this thought experiment. A report from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute said the mortality rate of self-driving is lower than that of human drivers, but the proportion of car crashes is still likely to be higher than that of human drivers. But according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), they insist self-driving can help reduce 94% of car accidents. Anyway, Intelligent driving is the development trend of Automotive Industry.
The trolley problem in autonomous car has become the focus of discussion among general public and academia. In the most of car accidents, people will turn the steering wheel subconsciously to avoid from harm. For an autonomous car, if the program choose to sacrifice drivers and passengers to protect others, the car company would lost some of potential customers, which may result in the reducing self-driving cars’ prevalence. The thing needs to identify is the technology can not recognize the humans’ gender, age and social status at the moment, so no argument will be shown here. According to the data above, if so, the car accident rate cannot be reduced as well. That means there will still have many accidents caused by human drivers per year, which can be avoid by autonomous cars.
In utilitarian terms, it’s about saving more lives. Hence, It’s not a bad choice to protect yourself in an unexpected situation.
Furthermore, referring to the utilitarianism theory, the program should be designed for minimising the danger and minimising the adverse result. Due to the fact that the car carried two people while the motorcycle carried one person, crashing a motorcycle could save two people with hurting one person and this decision meets the utilitarianism theory standard which is producing the greatest happiness for the greatest number.
On the public traffic, all drivers, including the self-driving, should obey the local transport regulations and tried their best to reduce the irreparable losses. In this dilemma, braking could not save the couple’s life and it might lead to the rear-end collision. However, turning left or turning right could save the couple’s life. Even though the rider on the motorcycle may get hurt, the losses of the traffic accident have been reduced in maximum. In addition, turning the wheel gives the drivers who followed the truck longer vehicles’ distance and reaction time to avoid the collision.
The decision given by the virtue ethics, care ethics and Kantism’s theory is opposite to the crashing. After the braking, the strangers could not criticize the programed action but it might lead to severer result. However, turning left or turning right could minimize the adverse result and save more lives.
Engineers and system programmers suggested that a random decision in similar situations might be the best solution at this moment.