The Ethical Implications of Self Driving Automobiles

Jun / 2017

The law’s of robotics state that computers and robotic technology must never seek to harm human life, and must stray from any and all actions that may result in injury. But how do these apply in the event of an unavoidable automotive accident involving a self-driving car? 2015 saw 1,858 individuals mortally wounded by car accidents in Canada. With automation and robotic technology gradually being introduced to the automotive industry, companies like Tesla are offering the promise of a fully automated vehicle that would significantly reduce vehicular collision. However, such innovation unearths certain moral implications that demand our attention.

The possibility of an unavoidable collision is a scenario in which we can adequately discuss the nature of these moral implications, and just how exactly they pertain to automated vehicles. In the case of an unpreventable collision, whatever circumstance it may be, a human driver would react highly instinctively to the situation. Such incidents rarely offer drivers more than a couple seconds before culminating, and thus drivers have very little conscious thought as to what decision they are about to make. The result will either be positive or negative, depending on the perspective taken, but the reaction to impending collision itself will be so rapid that analysis of what action you ought to take is often impossible.

Conversely, automated vehicles present an entirely different set of circumstances in the case of an unavoidable collision. The calculated decision making of a driving computer would likely sense an impending collision, and would have the time to calculate in that split second the action it will take. It is in this calculation that automated vehicles will be able to predict outcomes, and within this ability comes a moral question pertinent to the prospect of self-driving vehicles. Suppose a computer is faced with an impending collision, does it take action that will best benefit the occupant of the vehicle itself? Or does it take the action that may sacrifice the safety of the vehicles occupant in favor of maximizing the well-being of all possibly involved parties (other vehicles and occupants, pedestrians, infrastructure)? To illustrate, take the following scenario.

Imagine that in the not-too-distant future, you own a self-driving car. On one commute, as you cross a bridge, a random series of events causes your car to veer onto the sidewalk and toward a crowd of 10 people near the road. The car cannot stop in time to protect both itself and the group, but it can avoid hitting those 10 people by steering off of the road and into the water below. However, this action would likely kill you, the owner and occupant. What should it do? Save the single owner and sacrifice 10? Or maximize life and decide to sacrifice the well-being of the owner?

While these situations certainly do not exist in a vacuum, these options present the extremes of an unavoidable collision scenario. While it may be unlikely, the possibility for such events undeniably exists. Thus, the automation of vehicles must be programmed to act in such a scenario one way or another, making the task of vehicle robotics manufacturers one that may bear great moral significance. Vehicles will need to be programmed to deal with such incidents, and therefore a certain philosophical perspective must be applied to the development of self driving vehicles.

Do you believe automated vehicles should be programmed to act solely in the interest of protecting their owners and occupants?

Or should they aim to maximize life and minimize damage in every situation regardless of their occupants well-being?

While we at Shrader certainly do not have a concrete answer to these questions, we feel it important to stay engaged with the ongoing development of automotive industry technology and its possible implications. At Shrader we hold a reputation for quality backed by a commitment to responsible business and product development. In short, that means were committed to thinking about what we do instead of just doing it. We ensure that we investigate any and all surrounding concerns when developing a product. In doing so, we have become the premier source for companies wishing to engage with a responsible manufacturing corporation that values environmental stewardship and ethical business practices.



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