Science is struggling - The moral dilemmas posed by emergence of driverless cars

Brian Rogers
Rogers Rabbits

Should a robot car automatically choose to run over an old fogey and spare the young? Take out a jaywalker and avoid the law-abiding pedestrian? Hit the fat kid with the ice cream to dodge the fitness fanatic jogger?  

These are the sort of scenarios that clever people around the globe are trying to figure, with help from the public. Except maybe that ice cream example, I just made that up.

Researchers all over the world have asked millions of people tough moral questions. What should a driverless car be programmed to do, faced with an unavoidable accident?

The study gathered 40 million decisions in ten languages from 233 countries, and there’s some interesting common ground emerging. Some ‘shared moral preferences’, as the scientists call it.

Spare most lives

One concept emerging is a general agreement that, faced with unavoidable carnage, a driverless car should opt to spare the most lives, and not necessarily favour its single occupant over others outside the vehicle. Young people seem to rate a higher priority, and worldwide, research shows human lives are valued over animals.  

This is all bad news if you’re an aging goat who likes to smoke alone in the back seat.

Your driverless car would most likely sacrifice you to avoid a large bunch of younger, more human, health-conscious casualties.

University of Otago Associate Professor, Colin Gavaghan, is quoted in Science Media Centre NZ, saying these problems were philosophically fascinating, but until now, rarely much of a concern for law.

“Most drivers will never have to face such a stark dilemma,” says Colin, “and those who do will not have time to think through consequentialist and deontological ethics before swerving or braking!”

Translation: It’s all likely to happen faster than you can blink.

Crate in a crate

Most crashes happen so fast that the average human doesn’t have time to think of reslts, let alone react.One exception occurred, however, in the 1970s on Levers Road, when my Dad and I were following an apparently slow drunk home. He not only had time to realise he was going to crash, but had enough brain function and opportunity to clamber out of the careering Morris, with his crate under one arm, and exit before the car crashed.  

I doubt a driverless car would have the forethought to safely extract not only the passenger, but a dozen beers.

 Sure, he was a bit worse for wear, but had enough DB-sponsored anaesthetic on board to ease the pain.

Here at RR we are dismayed that no-one has worked out how a driverless car should respond in a road rage situation.

There are times, we all know, when the only option is to lean on the horn, issue colourful expletives and flip a bird. I can’t see Road Robo pulling off that sort of multi-tasking.

Young versus old

The “save the young” concept is fraught with issues. Colin raises the question: At what point does a child cross the threshold of having a less ‘valuable’ life? “Aged 16, or 18? Is an infant’s life more precious than a toddler’s or an eight-year-old’s? Expressed like that, the prospect of building a preference for ‘young’ lives looks pretty challenging.”

Here at RR, we doubt any fancy-schmancy autonomous car will have the ability or time to ascertain a pending crash victim’s age before impact.  

“One preference that might be easier to understand and to accommodate is for the car to save as many lives as possible,” says Colin. “Sometimes, that might mean ploughing into a logging truck rather than swerving into the group of cyclists. Most of us might recognise that as the ‘right’ thing to do, but would we buy a car that sacrificed our lives – or the lives of our loved ones – for the good of the many?

“Which brings us to the role of law in all this. Maybe it just shouldn’t be legal to buy a car that would discriminate on protected grounds, or that would sacrifice other people to preserve our own safety.

“But in that case, how many people would buy a driverless car at all?”

Good questions, Colin, but I suspect  there are a few psychopathic drivers out  there who would pay extra for a car that  could scan for Lycra.

Road question

Unitec Professor Hossein Sarrafzadeh says that one aspect not taken into account was that future roads “may not be the same roads we are using today”.

“Even if we use similar roads, they will be heavily-sensored, intelligent roads.

“They will certainly be much safer, although these ethical dilemmas will remain if the same roads are used.”

Here in the Bay of Plenty, forget intelligent roads. We’d just be happy if the government funded some roads with enough lanes.

Such as the witless Shite Highway 2, which we learnt this week isn’t going to be four-laned as it should, but is getting a few band aids slapped on it.

Far from an intelligent road, more like a road that was dropped on its head by its mother. All the technology in the world  isn’t going to solve a simple physics problem: How to get four lanes’ worth of traffic shoved down the impossible bottleneck of a two-lane goat track.

The result, of course, is the goat will still be smoking in the back seat, stuck in a five mile tailback to Bethlehem, flipping a hoof.

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