The Ethics And Fears Of Driverless Cars

Driverless cars hold the promise of safer transport. But how should they react when loss of life appears inevitable? Should a car swerve to miss a pedestrian on the road, even if doing so would kill the passenger?

Image: Ed Aldridge /

When it comes to autonomous cars, people generally approve of cars programmed to sacrifice their passengers to save others, but these same people are not enthusiastic about riding in such "utilitarian" vehicles themselves, a new survey reveals.

This inconsistency, which illustrates an inherent social tension between wanting the good of the individual and that of the public, persisted across a wide range of survey scenarios, revealing just how difficult it will be to make underlying programming decisions for autonomous cars -- something that should be done well before these cars become a global commodity.

Autonomous vehicles, or AVs, have the potential to benefit the world by eliminating up to 90 per cent of traffic accidents, but not all crashes will be avoided, and some crash scenarios will require AVs to make difficult ethical decisions.

To begin to inform a collective discussion about the way AVs should make such decisions, Jean-Fran├žois Bonnefon and colleagues conducted six online surveys of U.S. residents between June and November 2015, asking participants questions about how they would want their AVs to behave.

The scenarios involved in the survey varied in the number of pedestrian and passenger lives that could be saved, among other factors. Overall, participants said that AVs should be programmed to be utilitarian, but the same people also said they would prefer to buy cars that protected them and their passengers, especially if family members were involved.

This suggests that if both self-protective and utilitarian AVs were allowed on the market, few people would be willing to ride in the latter, even though they would prefer others to do so.

Professor Toby Walsh, the Research Leader of the Optimisation Research Group at NICTA says that we need to work this out sooner rather than later.

"Unlike the past, where if you survived an accident, you could be brought in front of the courts if you drove irresponsibly, we will have to program computers with behaviours in advance that determine how they react in such situations," Dr Walsh says.

"I would, however, caution the results that can be taken away from studies like these undertaken on Amazon Turk where participants are not themselves under any danger and had plenty of time to decide what the system should do. This may not reflect how we would, as drivers of cars, act in such moments of crisis."

Associate Professor Ian Yeoman from the Victoria University in Wellington says fears around autonomous cars are not new., but may be unfounded.

"When the Docklands Light Railway system was introduced in 1987, autonomous safety fears meant each train had a safety operator. Driveless trains already operate in many cities and can be seen in most international airports connecting us between terminals. We already have autonomous pizza delivery systems," Dr Yeoman says.

Autonomous vehicles will reach a tipping point where the advancement in science, the economic arguments and technology get to a point of incremental change and human consciousness 'that it is going to happen' and 'will happen' he points out. First of all we will see a series of small steps. Watch out for uber autonomous taxis or autonomous ships or autonomous cargo planes.

"We always fear the future, but without science and advancement we would still be in the cave and the wheel would not have been invented," Dr Yeoman says.