Should self-driving cars prioritize pedestrians' or drivers' safety?

Mercedes
© Mercedes stopping for pedestrian (we think)

The Trolley Problem is an ethics experiment:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the most ethical choice?

trolley problemWikipedia/CC BY 2.0

It is a question that the designers of self driving cars, or autonomous vehicles (AVs) have been weighing, which I will paraphrase: the car is coming down a mountain road with no shoulder. It rounds a curve and there is a child standing in the road. Does the car hit the person, saving the driver, or turn off the road down a cliff, saving the person in the road?

For many people, it is a fundamental philosophical problem and concern. But not for Mercedes; according to Michael Taylor in Car and Driver, they are going to program the car to save the people in the car, period.

All of Mercedes-Benz’s future Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous cars will prioritize saving the people they carry, according to Christoph von Hugo, the automaker’s manager of driver assistance systems and active safety. “If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car,” Hugo said in an interview at the Paris auto show. “If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.”

Taylor notes that people have said they wouldn’t buy AVs if it prioritized pedestrians over drivers, and Mercedes sells cars, so it is perfectly logical. Christoph von Hugo continues:

“You could sacrifice the car. You could, but then the people you’ve saved initially, you don’t know what happens to them after that in situations that are often very complex, so you save the ones you know you can save,” he argued. In other words, if the car swerves to avoid kids running into the road and instead crashes into something else, it risks the lives of those in the car and cannot predict with certainty what other side effects may follow. Perhaps the car bounces off a pole and hits the kids anyway, or the pole falls over on them, or there’s a secondary collision with a loaded school bus coming the other way.

To be fair to Mercedes and its heartless Herr Hugo, they don’t think this will happen often.

This moral question of whom to save: 99 percent of our engineering work is to prevent these situations from happening at all. We are working so our cars don’t drive into situations where that could happen and [will] drive away from potential situations where those decisions have to be made.

It is a really interesting and important point. A human being might think differently and sacrifice themselves instead of hitting someone, but it is expected that AVs will be much better drivers.

don't jaywalkWPA poster/Public Domain

On the other hand, I suspect that particularly in or around cities, they are going to do everything possible to keep those pedestrians out of the way in the first place with ever stronger legislation against jaywalking and perhaps even pedestrian separation from roadways altogether.

death race posterDeath Race Poster/Promo image

Or it might just turn into a giant electronic video version of Death Race 2000, where pedestrians who find themselves in the road deserve what they get, much like they appear to do now. Except this time, the people in the car just watch the show. 100 points for seniors!

Tags: Self-driving car

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