Should Your Car Be Programmed To Kill You?

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Jonathan O`Callaghan 23 Jun 2016, 19:00

Like it or not (although we can’t imagine why you wouldn’t), driverless cars are on their way, with some reports suggesting 10 million could be on the road by 2020. But with their adoption comes a few problems to be ironed out, and perhaps none are more controversial than the so-called “greater good” scenario.

The issue is this: In a few very rare scenarios, a driverless car may have to make a choice between protecting its occupants and protecting pedestrians. For example, if it's driving down a road at speed and someone runs out into the road, should it swerve into other traffic to avoid them, potentially injuring or killing the driver and passengers? Or should it make every attempt to stop, even though it knows it won’t be able to, killing the pedestrian?

(For more on these “trolley problems,” the researchers have released an interactive website to accompany the study called "The Moral Machine.")

This social dilemma is discussed in a study from a team of researchers published in the journal Science. “Autonomous vehicles (AVs) should reduce traffic accidents, but they will sometimes have to choose between two evils, such as running over pedestrians or sacrificing themselves and their passenger to save the pedestrians,” they note in their abstract.

In the study, the scientists sought to find out what the public’s view was on situations like these. Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk public opinion tool, the researchers conducted six surveys between June and November 2015.

Their results showed that, for the most part, people thought that the car should attempt to save as many people as possible: 76 percent thought a car should sacrifice one passenger in favor of 10 pedestrians. But support fell by a third when asked if they would be willing to be that passenger. People were less likely to approve a utilitarian approach when, for example, family members were in the car.

"Most people want to live in a world where cars will minimize casualties," said co-author Iyad Rahwan from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a statement. "But everybody wants their own car to protect them at all costs."

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