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Should Driverless Cars Be Programmed to Kill?

November 13, 2015

After it emerged that driverless cars may have to be programmed with a ‘moral code’ to make ethical decisions in an emergency situation, a new study has raised public concerns about this rapidly developing technology.

  • Driverless cars could be programmed to make life or death decisions in an emergency, choosing whether to sacrifice passengers or pedestrians
  • Survey reveals that, although the public support the need for this ‘moral code’, they wouldn’t buy a driverless car that’s programmed to kill them

Crash

Today we’re exploring the ethical dilemma driverless cars and their passengers face: in a potentially fatal imminent crash situation, what should your driverless car prioritise? Your life, your passenger’s life, or the pedestrian’s safety?

Are driverless cars safe in the first place?

Surely driverless cars would never be involved in a fatal collision in the first place? Unfortunately not. While initial data suggests a dramatic improvement in road safety, driverless cars can’t control their environment or other drivers on the road – so a fatal accident is far from an impossibility.

  • Driverless cars could reduce traffic fatalities by up to 90% (Source: US consulting firm, McKinsey & Company)
  • Over the past 6 years, Google’s driverless cars have been involved in 16 minor accidents, all of which were the result of human error

While these statistics don’t prove that driverless cars are 100% safe in the event of a life-threatening crash, the numbers are promising and could alleviate fears about letting go of the wheel.

Should driverless cars be programmed to make ethical decisions?

As driverless car technology progresses at an increasingly rapid pace – and the once sci-fi technology edges ever closer to a reality, both industry experts and the public have flagged concerns over their safety.

It’s recently come to light that, if the car’s automated driving system is presented with a dangerous situation (such as an imminent collision), the computer would need to take evasive action. But what if the computer’s options are limited – for example, if swerving around the obstruction involved driving into a crowd of pedestrians? Would the car risk fatally injuring the pedestrians, or would it sacrifice the driver (and passengers) in order to reduce the number of casualties?

self drive car

Original image by Steve Jurvetson

A recent study, conducted by French and American researchers, attempted to explore public opinion surrounding the recent revelation that driverless cars will need to be programmed to make ‘ethical’ decisions in a life-threatening road emergency.

Around 900 members of the public participated in the survey – and while the results show general understanding and support for a ‘moral code’ which aims to minimise the total death toll – even if it involves self-sacrifice – the same participants wouldn’t buy a self driving car (that’s been programmed as such) themselves. In other words, as a collective, there’s support for the moral programming – but on an individual level, support quickly disappears.

This poses a major problem for auto manufacturers investing in the technology, as the social and legal ramifications of such ethical programming could be enough to bring the concept of self driving cars to a close altogether.

While these are undoubtedly major concerns, they are arguably all part of the development process of driverless cars – and there’s still plenty of public and media interest in this emerging technology. Read on to find out more about how driverless cars work, what the benefits are and whether we’re likely to see the technology go mainstream in the near future.

How driverless cars work

Driverless car technology is still being perfected to this day – and you’d be hard pressed to find a version of a driverless car that most people feel comfortable climbing into. The idea of giving the power to autonomous cars to make decisions for you on the roads is a daunting thing for many people, who are already concerned with cars on the road. One of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to this seemingly futuristic tech is how driverless cars actually work.

A photo posted by Viswa Murali (@v15wk) on

While driverless car technology may seem cutting-edge, many of the components involved in making it work are already in practice today. Automatic emergency braking, parking assistance, sensors and cameras, as well as cruise control systems, are already widely used in modern cars today. Self driving cars simply take these technologies a step further and combine them to provide a fully automated driving experience.

Three things that separate the regular cars from autonomous cars are:

  • A high-tech GPS system used for navigation
  • Numerous sensors which analyse everything from road position to hazards and environmental conditions
  • A system that responds to that information – turning the wheel, adjusting throttle and braking as a result

Whether you fully understand the inner workings of the autonomous vehicle or not, there will always be a system in place that you can customise to ensure the car is driving the way you want it to, and making all the same decisions you would make if in control.

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Is it worth the trade?

One of the main reasons a driverless car may be beneficial is the fact that, for particularly busy people, a driverless car is an easy way to cut down on time and stress. Not only that, but to have a vehicle make all of the decisions for you means no arguments or stopping to ask for directions during longer journeys. The convenience of the car means that people can spend their journey time working, talking to people or even eating. This is the perfect mode of transport for someone with a busy lifestyle.

Some of the disadvantages of driverless cars all tie back to the lack of control that the driver will have. In essence, you’ll be treated as a passenger and therefore can’t make the choices you want to on your journey. For example, it might be that you want to stop off quickly when you pass a store or your car is taking you on a route that you know has a dead end, or will take longer due to the GPS system.

Industry concerns are also rampant, with fears that accidents would mean that the manufacturer is responsible – regardless of how the car was programmed to react under certain conditions. These fears are leading some manufactures to think twice before launching into a driverless future. However, with that being said, this is ultimately a great choice for those who want less pressure if their car is involved in an accident – and less to deal with if the blame is placed on the manufacturer.

The future of driverless cars

road

A poll conducted in 2014 showed that only 18% of British people believe that the industry should be focusing on developing autonomous cars, whilst 50% think the focus should be on implementing increased safety measures for both new and existing vehicles. Whether or not this is still the case, the driverless revolution is coming.

The US Secretary of Transportation has stated that driverless cars will be in use all over the world by 2025, but the question people are asking is: when will driverless cars be available? Driverless cars are actually set to be released within the next few years – with Google and Apple venturing into the world of the autonomous vehicle for the very first time.

Industry leaders such as Mercedes and Audi are also set to release their driverless cars into the wild before too long. Mercedes’ concept car, the F 015 will hit the market in the next few years, while Audi’s driverless car could be available as early as 2017.  

Driverless cars in the UK are soon to become a reality – so it’s worth asking yourself if you’re ready to embrace the future of technology or stay behind with as much control and responsibility as possible when it comes to your driving decisions.

About The Author

Jon Le Roux is co-founder and company director of The Car Loan Warehouse. Being a mad engineering and motorsport enthusiast, I spend more hours than is healthy, watching, reading or talking about cars, boats, motorbikes…..basically anything with an engine.