Self-driving robot cars are controlled by computer programs with huge amounts of traffic rules. But in traffic, not everything happens smoothly according to the rules. Suddenly a child runs out on the road. Two people try to help a cyclist who collapsed on the road. A motorist tries to make a U-turn on a too narrow road and is stuck, blocking the traffic.
Assuming that the robots’ programs are able to categorize traffic situations through image information from the cars’ cameras, the programs must select the appropriate driving behavior for the robot cars. Should the cars override important traffic rules by, for example, steering onto the sidewalk?
It is more complicated than that. Suppose that an adult is standing on the sidewalk. Should the adult’s life be compromised to save the child? Or to save the cyclist and the two helpful persons?
The designers of self-driving cars have a difficult task. They must program the cars’ choice of driving behavior in ethically complex situations that we call unexpected, but the engineers have to anticipate far in advance. They must already at the factory determine how the car model will behave in future “unexpected” traffic situations. Maybe ten years later. (I assume the software is not updated, but also updated software anticipates what we normally see as unexpected events.)
On a societal level, one now tries to agree on ethical guidelines for how future robot cars should behave in tragic traffic situations where it may not be possible to completely avoid injuries or fatal casualties. A commission initiated by the German Ministry for Transportation, for example, suggests that passengers of robot cars should never be sacrificed to save a larger number of lives in the traffic situation.
Who, by the way, would buy a robot car that is programmed to sacrifice one’s life? Who would choose such a driverless taxi? Yet, as drivers we may be prepared to sacrifice ourselves in unexpected traffic situations. Some researchers decided to investigate the matter. You can read about their study in ScienceDaily, or read the research article in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.
The researchers used Virtual Reality (VR) technology to expose subjects to ethically difficult traffic situations. Thereafter, they studied the subjects’ choice of traffic behavior. The researchers found that the subjects were surprisingly willing to sacrifice themselves to save others. But they also took into consideration the age of potential victims and were prepared to steer onto the sidewalk to minimize the number of traffic victims. This is contrary to norms that we hold important in society, such as the idea that age discrimination should not occur and that the lives of innocent people should be protected.
In short, humans are inclined to drive their cars politically incorrectly!
Why was the study done? As far as I understand, because the current discussion about ethical guidelines does not take into account empirical data on how living drivers are inclined to drive their cars in ethically difficult traffic situations. The robot cars will make ethical decisions that can make the owners of the cars dissatisfied with their cars; morally dissatisfied!
The researchers do not advocate that driverless cars should respond to ethically complex traffic situations as living people do. However, the discussion about driverless car ethics should take into account data on how living people are inclined to drive their cars in traffic situations where it may not be possible to avoid accidents.
Let me complement the empirical study with some philosophical reflections. What strikes me when I read about driverless car ethics is that “the unexpected” disappears as a living reality. A living driver who tries to handle a sudden traffic situation manages what very obviously is happening right now. The driverless car, on the other hand, takes decisions that tick automatically, as predetermined as any other decision, like stopping at a red light. Driverless car ethics is just additional software that the robot car is equipped with at the factory (or when updating the software).
What are the consequences?
A living driver who suddenly ends up in a difficult traffic situation is confronted – as I said – with what is happening right now. The driver may have to bear responsibility for his actions in this intense moment during the rest of his life. Even if the driver rationally sacrifices one life to save ten, the driver will bear the burden of this one death; dream about it, think about it. And if the driver makes a stupid decision that takes more lives than it saves, it may still be possible to reconcile with it, because the situation was so unexpected.
This does not apply, however, to the robot car that was programmed at the factory according to guidelines from the National Road Administration. We might want to say that the robot car was preprogrammed to sacrifice our sister’s life, when she stood innocently on the sidewalk. Had the car been driven by a living person, we would have been angry with the driver. But after some time, we might be able to start reconciling with the driver’s behavior. Because it was such an unexpected situation. And the driver is suffering from his actions.
However, if it had been a driverless car that worked perfectly according to the manufacturer’s programs and the authorities’ recommendations, then we might see it as a scandal that the car was preprogrammed to steer onto the sidewalk, where our sister stood.
One argument for driverless cars is that, by minimizing the human factor, they can reduce the number of traffic accidents. Perhaps they can. But maybe we are less accepting as to how they are programmed to save lives in ethically difficult situations. Not only are they preprogrammed so that “the unexpected” disappears as a reality. They do not bear the responsibility that living people are forced to bear, even for their rational decisions.
Well, we will probably find ways to implement and accept the use of driverless cars. But another question still concerns me. If the present moment disappears as a living reality in the ethics software of driverless cars, has it not already disappeared in the ethics that prescribes right and wrong for us living people?