Ethical Decisions May Be Embedded in Self-Driving Cars

Progress in self-driving vehicles led Chris Gerdes, a professor at Stanford University, and Patrick Lin, a professor of philosophy at Cal Poly, to experiment with ethical dilemmas that may come up when such vehicles become common.

Considering that recent proof-of-concept hacking attempts on smart vehicles have proven that, with off-the-shelf equipment and adequate skills, someone could interfere with and control the vehicle – in this case, a Jeep Cherokee – automotive manufacturers will have to reconsider built-in security standards.

Following such incidents, US politicians proposed a SPY Car Act to limit the potential damages caused by cyber-attacks by instructing all motor vehicle manufacturers in the country to equip their vehicles “with reasonable measures to protect against hacking attacks.”

Chris Gerdes and Patrick Lin have implemented some ethical settings into the software that controls these vehicles to prioritize human lives over financial or property loss. Gerdes argues that ethical dilemmas revolving around vehicles choosing to injure passengers over saving a child’s life will have to be part of the vehicle’s software.

“If that would avoid the child, if it would save the child’s life, could we injure the occupant of the vehicle? These are very tough decisions that those that design control algorithms for automated vehicles face every day,” he said.

Other researchers in the automated automotive business agree that vehicles need such software built in and that such safeguards will not only help protect passenger’s lives, but also pedestrian’s.

“When you ask a car to make a decision, you have an ethical dilemma,” says Adriano Alessandrini, a researcher working on automated vehicles at the University de Roma La Sapienza, in Italy. “You might see something in your path, and you decide to change lanes, and as you do, something else is in that lane. So this is an ethical dilemma.”

Not everyone believes such an endeavor will be easy. Finding common ground between automotive legislation, ethics and philosophy might prove to be far more complicated than estimated.

“Ethics, philosophy, law: all of these assumptions underpin so many decisions,” said Walker-Smith, an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina. “If you look at airbags, for example, inherent in that technology is the assumption that you’re going to save a lot of lives, and only kill a few.”

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