Driverless car accidents

Who would you want your car to kill? The driverless car is in a situation where it can either drive into a tree, harming the occupants, or into a crowd of people. Which should it choose?

Mercedes Benz announced last month that its cars would prioritise passenger safety, but then reversed course. They have never read Kant- from a selfish point of view, I would prefer that a car with me as a passenger preferred passengers, with me as a bystander preferred bystanders. In a survey, most people agreed that cars which impartially minimised casualties were more ethical, but would be frightened of such cars.

If the passengers’ safety is prioritised over the bystanders’, where would it end? Would the car prioritise the passengers’ convenience, going faster but risking bystander safety? A driverless car did not take enough risk. It went much slower in heavy traffic, because it left a safe distance between itself and the vehicle ahead, and vehicles behind continually passed it, pulling into that gap. That could only be resolved if every car was driverless, all communicating across a web.

If car buyers preferred cars that risked bystanders, law could correct that: a passenger could still be liable for harm caused by a car in their control, even criminally liable. Or bystanders could, the dystopic mob pulling passengers from the car and lynching them. Cars could not be allowed to prefer their occupants.

Here’s The Moral Machine, where you can submit your opinions to MIT, or design ethical dilemmas for others. Citylab questions how they should affect urban design and might affect pedestrian behaviour: people should not discourteously cross the road in front of a car, but don’t deserve to die for it, so would pedestrians become jerks? Would children play in the street? Would urban planners create even more fast roads banning pedestrians entirely? Would cities ban cars, in favour of public transport?

Slate goes deeply into optimising the interests of the individual against those of the group. If your car could take you to your city centre office, then go and park in the cheapest space possible- perhaps outside the city- should law intervene to prevent passengerless journeys? Might the car operate as a taxi during the day, before coming back for you at the end of your shift? Carmakers argue that optimal spacing between cars could reduce the need for roads or parking space, in expensive city land, but when driving gets easier, people drive more. This is called “induced demand”.

People can make decisions together, and legislate for optimal outcomes. Everyone would benefit. There is no “tragedy of the Commons” when there are well thought out rules governing the commons, only when individuals pursue their own interests without regard to those of others.

New York Times, Whose life should your car save?

4 thoughts on “Driverless car accidents

  1. I believe there won’t be a car that does both. It’s unfortunate, but the human race is a constant variable. If I had to choose though, I’d say I’d choose the passengers inside my car, before bystanders. I know that’s harsh, but it’s truth. My kids are usually my only passengers, and I value their lives before anyone else on this planet. If it were just myself, I’d risk my own life to save others. That however is not the case.


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