DENVER — Computer algorithms that control self-driving cars are already making life-and-death decisions for human beings — so say ethicists and technology experts interviewed by Business Insider.
For example, an autonomous vehicle would decide who lives and who dies if it swerved to avoid a pedestrian but, by doing that, put its on-board passengers in danger. Or, it could keep its passengers safe by running over the pedestrian. The decision would be made by the computers and sensors in the vehicle – and by extension, the computer programmers.
“On one hand, the algorithms that control the car may have an explicit set of rules to make moral tradeoffs,” Iyad Rahwan, a scientist at MIT, told Business Insider. “On the other hand, the decision made by a car in the case of unavoidable harm may emerge from the interaction of various software components, none of which has explicit programming to handle moral tradeoffs.”
Rahwan added, “Every time the car makes a complex maneuver, it is implicitly making trade-off in terms of risks to different parties.”
Google X founder Sebastian Thrun in 2014 said the company’s automated car would hit the smallest object in the road if it could not find a clear path.
“If it happens that there is a situation where the car couldn’t escape, it would go for the smaller thing,” he said.
Self-driving vehicles might be cruising through your community, making life-and-death decisions, without you realizing it. Prominent examples include:
- Uber subsidiary Otto Motors and Anheuser-Busch tested a self-driving semi-truck in Colorado on October 20. The truck drove for 120 miles on one of America’s busiest highways, Interstate 25, and passed right through the city of Denver. The truck delivered a full load of Budweiser to a store in Colorado Springs.
- Uber tested self-driving cars on the streets of San Francisco, even though it lacked the proper permits. The cars picked up paying passengers, and YouTube footage showed one running a red light. After the state of California cracked down, Uber moved the test and the cars to Arizona. Uber has been testing a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh for more than a year.
- Google conducted a secret test of its self-driving car in which a blind man rode alone. The vehicle had no steering wheel or pedals and there was no driver. The test was conducted in October 2015 but Google’s parent Alphabet (NYSE: GOOG) kept it secret until December 2016, The Washington Post
- Ford is planning to start selling the world’s first fully autonomous vehicle by 2021 – less than four years away. “Starting in 2021, if you want to get around the city without the hassle of driving or parking, Ford’s new fully autonomous vehicle will be there for you,” Ford CEO Mark Fields told reporters in August.
- Elon Musk’s Tesla is already selling Model S Series sedans equipped with a self-driving feature called autopilot. One death has already been blamed on autopilot,.
“The public has a right to know when a robot car is barreling down the street whether it’s prioritizing the life of the passenger, the driver, or the pedestrian, and what factors it takes into consideration,” Wayne Simpson of Consumer Watchdog told the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) in November testimony. “If these questions are not answered in full light of day … corporations will program these cars to limit their own liability, not to conform with social mores, ethical customs, or the rule of law.”
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