Someday, Your Car Might Kill You to Save Others

Someday, in addition to transporting you all over town without much input from you, your car may decide if you should live or die.

We aren’t talking murderous, Stephen King novel-style cars like Christine.

We are talking self-driving cars, and concerns that they could be programmed to kill you if necessary.

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The cars can assess dangerous situations and react accordingly – including sacrificing your life to save others.

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Self-driving cars (also known as “driverless” or “robotic” cars) are expected to be available to the public in just a few years. Google is already lobbying to make the cars legal to drive on public roads. So far, Nevada, California, Florida, Michigan, and Washington, D.C. have passed legislation allowing testing of the cars and other use on public roads.

About two weeks ago, Google released the details of accidents that involved the company’s self-driving cars. Since 2009 – when Google’s self-driving project began – the cars have been involved in a dozen wrecks:

“In the six years of our project, we’ve been involved in 12 minor accidents during more than 1.8 million miles of autonomous and manual driving combined. Not once was the self-driving car the cause of the accident,” Google said.

There’s no way to really know how safe the cars are until they are more widely used, but there’s another issue to consider: how will they handle impending accidents?

Google’s cars can already manage common driving hazards, but how will the vehicles handle no-win situations where it must choose between swerving into oncoming traffic or steering directly into a barrier, wall, or building?

The computers will be fast enough to make split-second decisions, but…should they?

Matt Windsor of UAB News presented the following dilemma:

They would have time to scan the cars ahead and identify the one most likely to survive a collision, for example, or the one with the most other humans inside. But should they be programmed to make the decision that is best for their owners? Or the choice that does the least harm — even if that means choosing to slam into a retaining wall to avoid hitting an oncoming school bus? Who will make that call, and how will they decide?

Windsor discussed the issue with bioethicist Ameen Barghi, a recent University of Alabama graduate, who said there are two philosophical approaches to this type of question:

“Ultimately, this problem devolves into a choice between utilitarianism and deontology.”

“Utilitarianism tells us that we should always do what will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people,” he explained. In other words, if it comes down to a choice between sending you into a concrete wall or swerving into the path of an oncoming bus, your car should be programmed to do the former.

Deontology, on the other hand, argues that “some values are simply categorically always true,” Barghi continued. “For example, murder is always wrong, and we should never do it.” Going back to the trolley problem, “even if shifting the trolley will save five lives, we shouldn’t do it because we would be actively killing one,” Barghi said. And, despite the odds, a self-driving car shouldn’t be programmed to choose to sacrifice its driver to keep others out of harm’s way.

But can a computer weigh these ethical quandaries properly?

Gregory Pence, Ph.D., chair of the UAB College of Arts and Sciences Department of Philosophy, says no:

“A computer cannot be programmed to handle them all. We know this by considering the history of ethics. Casuistry, or applied Christian ethics based on St. Thomas, tried to give an answer in advance for every problem in medicine. It failed miserably, both because many cases have unique circumstances and because medicine constantly changes.”

While self-driving cars aren’t going to go out on their own, drive around town, and kill gang members like King’s Christine, do we really want cars making life-or-death decisions for us?


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