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Automated Morality

Nick Englehart

Posted on December 20, 2019 16:13

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Who gets to make the decisions when someone else's car has to save a life?

Image by Dietmar Rabich (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Autonomous vehicles are on their way and there's no stopping them. Especially if you’re a pedestrian, because Mercedes is going to run you over.

Ethical philosophers everywhere rejoice! The trolly problem has finally become tangible. Mothers are proud that their children's degree wasn't worthless after all!

Though philosophy was never able to find a solution, the engineers at Mercedes-Benz have: save the driver, sacrifice anyone else.

Though it might seem like it, the answer to this question was never one of morality. The decision was made the moment Mercedes decided they wanted to be able to sell the car. In a study of 2,000 people, Bonnefon, Shariff, and Rahwan found, “in six Amazon Mechanical Turk studies [the participants] approved of utilitarian AVs (that is, Autonomous Vehicles that sacrifice their passengers for the greater good) and would like others to buy them, but they would themselves prefer to ride in AVs that protect their passengers at all costs.”

That’s simply human nature. It’s easy to claim you want what makes logical sense, but when your life is on the line, it's always going to be about the individual. Mercedes made the right business call. Not only will it ensure confidence in those who might eventually buy these vehicles, but it satisfies government regulation for a Class 5 autonomous vehicle and takes a strong stance on ethical quandaries.

None of that should excuse their handling of the situation. The manager of driver assistance systems at Mercedes, Christoph von Hugo, tried to justify the company's decision, saying, “If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.” A statement that Mercedes has publicly reminded us is Christoph von Hugo's own. Even if it is the right decision a little more tact may have been necessary than an example of swerving off the road to dodge a child, hitting a tree, then having the branch of that tree falling on the child anyway.

The transition to automation was always going to be difficult. People just aren’t comfortable losing any semblance of control. This problem, however, needs to be put into context.

In 2017, 37,133 people lost their lives from motor vehicle crashes. Of those, 94% involved driver related factors such as impaired driving, distractions, speeding, and illegal maneuvers. 16%, or 5,977 of those deaths, were pedestrians killed by motor vehicles.

Humans are terrible drivers. Level 5 autonomous vehicles won’t make the same mistake. The immense amount of regulation and rigorous testing put in place before road eligibility almost ensures safety. Incidents like the ones described by Mercedes will likely become outliers, not eventualities.  

The real question will be how we deal with these companies in their failings, and where we draw the line between progress and accountability. It’s a question to which we must be constantly vigilant. Otherwise, the people who have an interest in making the most money will always be the arbiters of those decisions.

Nick Englehart

Posted on December 20, 2019 16:13

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