Driverless Cars Pose a Major Moral Dilemma

The idea of living in world where driverless cars are the standard feels likes something pulled straight from an Isaac Asimov novel, a fantastical idea from an imaginary future. But most experts believe that at least 10 million cars will be on the road by 2020. The onset of any kind of artificial intelligence brings with it some inherent moral dilemmas. In a study published in the journal Science, researchers decided to ask people one of those questions: Should a fully autonomous vehicle be programmed to protect pedestrians or passengers?

Researchers surveyed hundreds of participants about the different scenarios that might arise if a driverless car is forced to swerve out of the way to avoid hitting a pedestrian. While the majority answered that they would want driverless cars to be programmed to prevent as many casualties as possible, they would still prefer a car that places a premium on the safety of passengers over pedestrians.

One of the multiple scenarios presented to the study’s participants involved a self-driving car traveling at the speed limit that's suddenly faced with 10 pedestrians who appear directly in the car’s path. Should it be programmed to swerve off the road and risk the passenger’s safety, or should it hit the 10 pedestrians? A whopping 76% of 182 participants agreed that the car should be programmed to protect the pedestrians instead of the passengers.

However, as researchers continued their study, they uncovered the social dilemma of people ultimately preferring a self-protective car if faced with a decision on what model they would purchase for themselves. “Just as we work through the technical challenges, we need to work through the psychological barriers,” said Iyad Rahwan, a professor at MIT and one of the study’s authors.

“With driverless cars, the public good here is public safety,” he added. “And to maximize safety, people want to live in a world in which everybody always drives in the cars that minimize casualties. But they want their own car to protect them at all costs.”

To learn more about the driverless car revolution pick up a copy of Getting Ready for Driverless Cars by Patrick Sullivan. Would you prefer an autonomous car that puts a premium on your safety or someone else's?