Archives for November 16, 2015


Researchers Probe The Moral Code In Autonomous Cars

Australia Experiences Her First Driverless Test Drive


Currently, driverless cars have been extensively tested in the United States, especially California, which has now even legalized the vehicles. On 7 November 2015, Australian roads received a new entrant, a driverless Volvo XC70s, cruising at about 70kph on an expressway near Adelaide. This unveiling was held in conjunction with a driverless car conference, which was backed up by the South Australian government.


Despite The Latest Advancements, How Is The Moral Code In Driverless Vehicles?

Even as plans to have driverless vehicles on the road by 2020 intensify, researchers have probed the moral code in autonomous cars, giving the public more impactful knowledge to help them make informed decisions.

The ability of autonomous vehicles to accurately assess risks and make the best decision has greatly been in question. A team of researchers from the United States and France teamed up to understand public perception of a driverless car with built-in utilitarian moral code.

The researchers ran a series of surveys, in which 900 participants were exposed to different scenarios. In one particular and interesting scenario, one or more pedestrians could be saved if the car swerved into a barrier killing the driver instead of the pedestrians. Alternatively, the car would simply drive through the pedestrians, killing them and saving the driver as a result.  Generally, the participants were presented with three options- stay, random or swerve. They were then expected to individually rate the morality of each option and state if they would buy self-drive cars that had their respective choice options built-in.

One of the team members, Jean-Francois Bonnefon, from Toulouse School of Economics, told the ABC that majority of the participants chose self-drive cars which would sacrifice their passengers and in turn save pedestrians. These people highly preferred this type of cars and even recommended them to others. The irony, however, was that these same people would not buy the passenger-sacrificing driverless cars.


The Social Dilemma

Collectively, humans think that the self-sacrificing cars are great and ethical but individually, they are hesitant to adopt them. According to Mr. Bonnefon, this is a tricky situation for manufacturers because they strive to create vehicles consumers will buy and still ensure they are morally upright- a balance that’s hard to find at the moment.

What Car Makers Are Now Doing

In the 1960s, a famous thought experiment in ethics known as the trolley problem, was simply a parlor game for academic philosophers. In this day, this dimension of thinking is being seriously considered by car makers in a bid to develop publicly accepted vehicles.

Car makers have already began consulting ethicists on whether self-drive cars should and could use algorithms to make ethical decisions just like humans. Herbert Winner, head of the automotive engineering faculty at Darmstadt University of Technology, warns that in the event of an accident, humans will still blame robots. He therefore asserts that car makers should strive to find this much needed balance.

In conclusion, just like Bonnefon and his colleagues suggested, more research should be conducted to help car manufacturers identify a moral algorithm that will simultaneously incorporate the public’s collective view while at the same time, ensure that individuals are protected, to give them confidence to invest in self-drive cars.