The Ethics of Self-Driving Vehicles

November 20, 2015 by Adam Luehrs

Picture yourself being driven down the road, and yet you’re the only person in the car. Now imagine that autonomous car then steering you right into a wall, causing you to lose your life. Believe it or not, that is exactly what some of these vehicles may be programmed to do — in certain situations.

Personal Ethics

Of course, in the above example, you might also be sacrificing your life to save ten people in your path.

Researchers from the Toulouse School of Economics, the University of Oregon, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently analyzed consumers’ responses to the above scenario and released a study of their findings.

Those surveyed tended to be okay with the general idea of a car swerving into a wall and killing its lone passenger to save the ten people it would have otherwise run into — as long as they weren’t the ones being sacrificed.

For this reason, it’s assumed that companies are not going to plan to build altruistic cars that follow that oft-repeated phrase from Star Trek: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few — or the one.”

However, this decision may one day be taken completely out of our hands, if law dictates that we use autonomous vehicles, which would require we also trust that they make decisions for the greater good — whether that involves our being alive at the end of the ride or not.

For what it’s worth, there is a view that our roads will be significantly safer if people are no longer behind the wheel at all. For example, alcohol, drugs, fatigue, or cell-phone distraction would no longer be the concerns they are today. Vehicles would also be driven in a quicker, more fuel-efficient manner, plus you’d have more time to finish that report for work or homework for class.

Of course, autonomous vehicles come with their own set of issues, such as cyberattacks, which could result in your vehicle being controlled by somebody with devious intentions in mind for you or those in your path. Luckily, the government is starting to notice and is taking action on preventing hacking incidents in the future. However, most automotive and technology experts believe self-driving vehicles will be worth the risk, when the big picture is considered.

Financial Ethics and Considerations

Self-driving cars represent a step forward for safety and convenience, but they also present a huge quandary for insurers. If your vehicle is programmed to choose the lesser of two evils by letting a passenger perish in a roadside wreck instead of plowing into a group of pedestrians, who’s going to be liable for the results?

While the ethics of these technologies are extremely nuanced, it’s likely that policy providers will be about as utilitarian as the programming that runs the autonomous vehicles themselves. As more consumers and lawmakers become accustomed to the idea that their lives may be in the hands of programs, insurers could respond by crafting policy terms that focus on parties such as automakers and software providers.

Of course, you shouldn’t count on freedom from your premiums just yet. Early lawsuits, state laws, and pushback from lobbyists are likely to maintain the current insurance status quo in the early days of this awesome technology.

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