When it comes to automotive technology, carmakers are in a race to launch the world’s first driverless car. However, before widespread adoption of this new technology can take place, carmakers are confronted with an ethical dilemma: How should carmakers program driverless cars to make moral decisions when faced with an unavoidable accident? Considering personal safety and public welfare, should it be programmed to minimise the loss of life, even if it means sacrificing the occupants?
Why driverless cars should prioritise the car occupants’ safety above others?
Since the advent of vehicles, human error has always been coined as the main culprit of traffic accidents, heavily outnumbering other causes such as faulty machinery and weather conditions. With the imminent launching of driverless cars, it is widely speculated that the number of road accidents would be significantly decreased. However, before putting ideas into practice, engineers are posed with an ethical design dilemma. Regardless of the moral decision made, the real life version of the Trolley problem will certainly have a knock-on effect on all road users, legislative bodies and carmakers. In this case, all stakeholders have a common goal of ensuring road safety.
Imagine you’re sitting in a driverless car, when suddenly a cyclist veers out of control and falls onto your path. How should your car react in such an unavoidable accident? One possible option is to integrate a moral algorithm that select the least destructive outcome in the event of unavoidable accident. A survey revealed that people are generally comfortable with this idea, but displayed reluctance to use such a car in fear of being sacrificed. However, some would argue that the moral algorithm should be based on priorities such as children, important public figures, and perhaps the car occupants. In contrast, some experts suggested the use of random outcome generators to prevent any discriminatory behaviour. Nevertheless, common sense dictates that matters of life and death should not be intentionally left to chance.
Using the utilitarian approach, incorporating a moral algorithm to minimise the collective ‘suffering’ seems morally permissible. Still, many might prefer driving a conventional car due to the possible risks of dying towards driverless car occupants. Consequently, this would lead to a comparatively larger number of traffic accidents owing to human error which increases the ‘suffering’ on a global statistical scale. Therefore, we can say that the utilitarian approach is inconclusive.
An alternative approach to the problem is using Kant’s theory which advocates on equal dignity and respect. Several experiments conducted implied that driverless cars are less likely to be responsible for causing accidents. The studies show that the events leading to accidents are likely to be caused by other parties such as unaware pedestrians jaywalking across the street. According to Kant’s theory, we have the right not to be harmed or injured unless we freely or knowingly do something to deserve punishment or choose to risk such injuries. As such, it can be argued that it is ethically impermissible for the car occupants to suffer the negative consequences due to negligence of others. This approach supports the notion that car occupants should receive a higher safety priority.
In retrospect, car occupants should be prioritised in the event of an unavoidable accident due to the mentioned reasons.
Why equal right for all road users should be applied to driverless car?
The emergence of driverless car might potentially compromise the safety of non-occupants. To date, there are no laws related to having driverless car on public roads within UK. Furthermore, the average number of non-occupant fatalities per year represents more than 51% of the total fatalities from all road user groups. Ideally, carmakers aim to increase their profits through higher production while complying with safety legislations. The desire of all road users will be minimal exposure to road accidents whereas the local government will seek to protect all road users without compromising the economic welfare of the stakeholders.
To ensure the safety of non-occupants, an institutional review board should be created so carmakers are compelled to provide potential accident scenarios and subsequent driverless cars’ responses. Safety legislations associated to the legal responsibilities of each stakeholder should be defined before the driverless cars are allowed to operate on public roads. All stakeholders should be fully aware of the capabilities of the moral algorithm.
According to utilitarian framework that emphasizes “the greatest happiness for the greatest number”, the quantifiable and comparable utility in an unavoidable crash is the number of fatalities resulting from the accident. With the statistical data shown above, it is sensible to consider the welfare of non-occupants can bring the greater happiness to the majority of all road users. Think about a road accident involving collision between a driverless car and a public transport such as an occupied bus, the human lives on the public transport could be determined as ‘expendable’ by the algorithm if the driverless car were to prioritise its own car occupants. This action opposes the principle of utility because it could result in higher fatality rates. With the designation of a review board, the board is able to evaluate the ethical judgement of these responses and subsequently ensure the rights of all road users are protected.
It is suggested that driverless carmakers should reveal the capabilities of the moral algorithm. This is to ensure the stakeholders possess sufficient information to make autonomous rational decisions. If a non-occupant is harmed due to being unaware of athe fact that the driverless cars are programmed to prioritize the safety of the car occupants, there would be no regulation enforced to protect them. This will effectively contradict with Kant’s reciprocity principle where humans should not be used as means to achieve certain goals. Failure to provide this information to the public implies that carmakers could exploit non-occupants via legal loopholes. Thus, they could avoid being legally liable for the accident. With the information made available to the public, relevant stakeholders namely legislatures will be able to ensure the moral algorithm does not infringe the rights of non-occupants.
37: Sean Loo Wei Jie, Felicia Lee Pui Xuan, Lim Ken Hua, Ling Min Tan