13 May 2018

Examining Moral Judgments of Autonomous Cars

Traffic accidents are a major source of death and injury in the world. As technology improves, automated vehicles will outperform their human counterparts, saving lives by eliminating accidents caused by human error. Despite this, there will still be circumstances where self-driving vehicles will need to make decisions in a morally challenging situation. For example, a car can swerve to avoid hitting a child that has run into the road but in doing so endangers other lives. How should it be programmed to behave? An ethics commission initiated by the German Ministry for Transportation has created a set of guidelines, representing its members' best judgement on a variety of issues concerning self-driving cars. 

These expert judgments may, however, not reflect human intuition. Researchers designed a virtual reality experiment to examine human intuition in a variety of possible driving scenarios. Different sets of tests were created to highlight different factors that may or may not be perceived as morally relevant. Based on a traditional ethical thought experiment, the trolley problem, test subjects could choose between two lanes on which their vehicle drove at constant speed. They were presented with a morally challenging driving dilemma, such as an option to move lanes to minimize lives lost, a choice between victims of different age, or a possibility for self-sacrifice to save others. It revealed that human intuition was often at odds with ethical guidelines.

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