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The Ethics Behind Self-Driving Cars

July 10, 2016

As self-driving cars come closer to becoming a reality, researchers are puzzled over complex issues of morality. Car manufacturers of today must decide what morals their machines should be imprinted with, and who should decide the ethics of cars. Recently, a group of computer scientists and psychologists explored the social dilemma of self-driving cars in a study published in Science magazine. Our car accident lawyers find these paradoxical results could raise more questions for car manufacturers of these futuristic vehicles.

The Greater Good vs. Self-Preservation

The researchers conducted six online surveys of residents across the United States last year between the months of June and November. Participants were presented with a series of scenarios that required them to choose who the autonomous vehicle should save in the event of a crash that must either injure pedestrians or vehicle passengers. Situations varied regarding the number of pedestrian lives that could be saved by crashing the car into another vehicle or object, compared with the number of passengers in the vehicle that would be saved if the car hit the pedestrians.

The surveys essentially asked participants for their answers to a decades-old puzzle known as the "trolley problem." The problem was first introduced by a British philosopher in 1967. It presents an ethical problem through the following scenario—imagine a trolley is unable to stop and is quickly heading towards five workmen on the tracks. The lives of the five workers can be spared by switching the trolley to the other line, but there is one worker on those tracks. Who should be saved and who should be sacrificed? The answer teases out complex ethical issues involving the greater good.

Similarly, scenarios presented to survey participants asked for opinions on what to do when an accident is about to occur and the result is either injuring a pedestrian or vehicle passengers. Participants were also gauged on their opinion as to government regulation over artificial intelligence. Overall, in analyzing the data, researchers concluded that participants believe self-driving cars should act for the greater good. Meaning, for themselves and their families, they would want a self-driving car that protected their lives above all others. Further, participants as a whole did not welcome the idea of government regulation, as they wanted the ability to select a self-driving vehicle that met their ideals.

Different Algorithms to Appeal to Different Morals

The results of the study indicate that it will be hard to develop a self-driving car with ethics that meet everyone's beliefs. One possibility is for car manufacturers to offer vehicles with different algorithms, and essentially, different morals. Some autonomous vehicle makers may program their vehicles to save the passengers above all else, whereas other cars may adopt a greater good approach. Government regulation adds another layer of complexity to the issue due to the possibility that it may not embrace the concept of cars with varying ethics and could instead impose a blanket rule for all vehicles.

The era of the self-driving car may soon be upon us, and these are just some of the thorny issues researchers, car makers, the government, and the public will need to address. The legal field will additionally adapt to meet the times, with product defect cases perhaps becoming more commonplace than personal injury actions.

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If you or a loved one has been injured in a car accident, the Georgia Automobile Accident Attorneys at Montlick and Associates, Attorneys at Law, are here to help. For over 38 years, our firm has assisted accident victims across Georgia, including but not limited to Albany, Athens, Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus, Gainesville, Macon, Marietta, Rome, Roswell, Savannah, Smyrna, Valdosta, Warner Robins and all smaller cities and rural areas in the state.

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Category: Auto Accidents

Please Note:
Many of our blog articles discuss the law. All information provided about the law is very general in nature and should not be relied upon as legal advice. Every situation is different, and should be analyzed by a lawyer who can provide individualized advice based on the facts involved in your unique situation, and a consideration of all of the nuances of the statutes and case law that apply at the time.