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The murky ethics of self-driving cars


At the n+1 website, Daniel Albert writes about the unexpected ethical quandaries that will accompany the adoption of self-driving cars. If a car’s behavior is determined by pre-written code rather than human decision, what should the car be programmed to do when faced with the choice of, for example, hitting a pedestrian, or swerving out of the way and into another car? Albert suggests that, contrary to what the techno-utopian advocates of self-driving cars think, such ethical quandaries have been with us since the automobile was invented. Here’s an excerpt:

“The ethics of saving lives with autonomous cars is far murkier than you think,” writes Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics and Emerging Sciences group at California Polytechnic. Lin has been the most prolific advocate of the idea that driverless cars are a revolutionary kind of moral actor. His comments have appeared in the Atlantic, in Wired, on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and in an elaborately animated TED-ed web video in which Lin narrates a philosophical thought experiment. To paraphrase: Your driverless car trails an overloaded truck on a three-lane highway, when the trucker’s load suddenly tumbles off the back. Quick as a flash, the car—let’s call her Porsche—assesses the situation. She can swerve left into an SUV, swerve right into a motorcycle, or stay straight and collide with the boxes just ahead. A teraflop later, the car has taken into account who is riding in the SUV (the children are our future), whether or not the biker is wearing a helmet, and what’s in the boxes. What will Porsche do? …

I’m optimistic about our robot car future. It will be really cool. But make no mistake that the development of driverless cars will flow from the same combination of forces that have carried us from the Model T to the Tesla. For some 120 years those forces have favored not mobility precisely, but automobility: a system that melds moving from place to place with industrial production and consumerism. Promoters of autonomous vehicles promise that they will defeat those forces, will wipe the slate clean. History suggests that they might also be consumed by them. To paraphrase Marx, “Cars make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” Robot cars will be neither moral nor immoral in the narrow sense premised in the thought experiments now being conducted and sold as valuable. They will not exist outside of the current automotive ecosystem. They will instead enter an automotive landscape that instantiates myriad ethical choices made in the past and rehearsed daily. Nonetheless, society may one day conclude, as per Vision Zero, that no one should die on the altar of consumption and mobility.

Image via of n+1.