The Biggest Ethical Question About Self-Driving Cars

I’ve done a fair amount of reading regarding self-driving cars, and the potential they have to change our world and all the good that can come from them. But to this date, this article written by Patrick Lin, is one that I always think about. He writes about self-driving cars from an ethicist’s perspective, and it really got me thinking. Here’s a brief summary of the scenario he portrays:

A self-driving car is racing down a crowded highway (adhering to the speed limit, of course) when, all of the sudden, an accident unfolds in front of it. Immediately to the front of the car is a tiny smart car and a big pick-up truck. The car’s algorithm runs through thousands, even millions, of possible scenarios in the milliseconds it has to react. The car concludes that it only has two choices: hit the smart car or hit the pick-up truck.

To entertain this possibility, you must accept the fact that the car’s computation really led to only these two choices. In reality, there is probably very little chance that this would occur. But nonetheless, the ethical dilemma is evident.

One rationale for the car choosing to hit the pick-up truck is that the massive size of the truck makes it well equipped to take a hit as compared to the frail body of the smart car. This would ensure safety for all drivers involved. But even in this scenario, the self-driving vehicle seems to be targeting large vehicles. Now, is it fair to truck drivers that they are essentially targets of self-driving vehicles? And what of the computer scientists who programmed this self-driving vehicle? Can they be held liable for programming the vehicle to target large trucks?

There is, of course, no right or wrong answer. We are in the gray area of autonomous machine ethics. I am definitely not qualified to comment on the questions posed above, but I do think about it every now and then. Regardless of what people may think, I believe we won’t come to a conclusion until a similar situation unfolds in the near future, leading the courts to essentially et a precedent for this scenario.

Obviously there are probably hundreds of varying opinions out there. If you have any thoughts or ideas on how this might play out, feel free to leave a comment.

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