The self-driving or autonomous cars have being in the news a lot lately. The hype started since Google took their self-driving car for a spin in the city if Austin last year. Since then, it’s being a case of who can make the biggest noise. Every car or tech company has bought into the idea of the self-driving car. The future is likely going to be a collaboration between software giants like Google and automakers like (BMW or Mercedes) for large scale production of the cars.
While the race to be the first to produce a commercial self-driving car is heating up, a new study has thrown an ethical question around the issue of these cars. It is a classic Man vs Machine scenario. Or in this, case man vs man, but with the the machine acting as an arbiter about who gets to die. It is a moral choice for man, but for machines, it is a choice based on the greater good. Especially if the software is programmed to put the greater good ahead of any other consideration.
The questions the study in Science attempts to answer are simple enough: would you buy a car that is programmed to kill you? The simple, obvious answer is a resounding No! Taking it up another notch, would you buy a car that is programmed to kill a pedestrian? Again the logical answer is No! The third question, a mixture of the first and second is, would you buy a car that would kill you, the passenger to save an innocent pedestrian in danger of being killed by the car? This time the NO! won’t be so resounding, but it would come after a few seconds pause.
That is the dilemma the study in Science tried to understand. The behavior of people in these circumstances, when faced with that choice, to kill or die, varies, but it is overwhelming in favor of looking for a third choice. Where both passenger and pedestrians survive. However, this is a classic case of ‘You can’ t eat you cake and have it.’ It is either one or the other.
The detailed study involved 1928 human subjects from various background, age, race and social standing in the community. Spanning over a period of 5 moths, from June to November last year, the online survey has really thrown a spanner into the rush to adopt the self-driving car.
Here is the thing about human behavior or to be more specific, humans driving a car: a driver would instinctively swerve out of the road to avoid hurting a pedestrian. The swerving is instinctive. It is done without thought that the driver would harm themselves or at worse kill themselves. Drivers even swerve to avoid killing animals thereby causing serious accidents. But the study show that, while human beings are in support of protecting pedestrians at all cost, they don’t want that decision to be made by a software in the self driving car.
A further question tackled by the study is who to save between one pedestrian on the side of the road or several pedestrians crossing the road who are in danger of being killed by the approaching car. The principle of the grater good insists that the lone pedestrian must be sacrificed for the greater good. Basically kill one person instead of several. On paper and in ethics, it is sound. But the moralists insists that all lives are important, and it is not for anybody to decide who to kill and who to spare.
In the final analysis, according to the study, people would rather not buy cars or drive in cars that are programmed to make these logical choices. It is a serious contradiction. People make these decisions everyday, but they don’t want a software to make the same decision. But like was said earlier, it is a case of this or that. There is no middle ground. The self-driving car would make the logical decision of not hurting a pedestrian, even if that decision means the passenger in the car will die.
Again, there is no middle ground. The world has better come to terms with the simple fact: the self-driving car is programmed to kill the you, the passenger.
However, whether that fact is accepted or not, self-driving cars are also programmed to be safer than normal cars. The study did not dispute that
photo credit: sciencemag.com; Google; gizmodo.com;