AutoJournal October 2017
The October 2017 issue of AutoJournal is now available online. You can flip through it here, but first, a few words from the Editor in chief of AutoJournal, Jack Kazmierski.
The Lesser Evil
My 19-year-old son thinks self-driving cars are a great idea. He’s looking forward to the day when everyone will have one. “I have more faith in a computer than in a human being,” he told me. “Humans make dumb mistakes. They spill things when driving and get distracted. A computer won’t do that. It will stay focused on the task at hand.”
Good point! However, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) recently ran a program that asked an intriguing question: Imagine for a moment that a train has lost its brakes. It’s picking up speed while going down a hill towards a fork in the track. The path it’s on now will kill five innocent bystanders. But you have the power to flip a switch that will divert the train onto another track where it will kill only one innocent bystander. What do you do?
If you’re finding it difficult to decide, you’re not alone. Furthermore, if you’re having trouble with the question (let’s face it, no loss of life is good), then how would a self-driving vehicle make the same decision when faced with a similar dilemma?
Ethical autonomous vehicles
Self-driving vehicles will only make choices they’ve been programmed to. So if engineers program them to choose the lesser of two evils, at first glance that might seem like the right idea. Unfortunately, these choices are never as black and white as we’d like them to be.
The BBC brought up an interesting scenario: If a self-driving vehicle were to lose control (for whatever reason), and it had to choose whether to go left and take five lives, or right and take one life, then it would obviously go right.
But what if the choice was a bit more complex? What if it had to decide between killing five innocent bystanders, or sacrificing just one, the passenger in the vehicle? And what if that passenger were you?
Who would buy one?
Now the question takes on a different dimension, explained the BBC. Now the question becomes, “Would you buy a self driving vehicle, or even get into one, knowing that the vehicle may decide, in a worst case scenario, to sacrifice you and your family in order to save a group of bystanders?
The bottom line is that the whole idea of self-driving vehicles, as exciting as it may be, still has a few wrinkles that need to be ironed out before these vehicles are ready for the mass market. And some of those wrinkles may fall into the realm of ethics, which makes the matter even more complex.
Self-driving cars may never get distracted, and they may do a great job focusing on the task at hand, but will we be happy with the decisions they’ll make when choosing the lesser of two evils?