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The ethical dilemma of self-driving cars

posted by Jason Kottke   Dec 10, 2015

When people drive cars, collisions often happen so quickly that they are entirely accidental. When self-driving cars eliminate driver error in these cases, decisions on how to crash can become pre-meditated. The car can think quickly, “Shall I crash to the right? To the left? Straight ahead?” and do a cost/benefit analysis for each option before acting. This is the trolley problem.

How will we program our driverless cars to react in situations where there is no choice to avoid harming someone? Would we want the car to run over a small child instead of a group of five adults? How about choosing between a woman pushing a stroller and three elderly men? Do you want your car to kill you (by hitting a tree at 65mph) instead of hitting and killing someone else? No? How many people would it take before you’d want your car to sacrifice you instead? Two? Six? Twenty?

The video above introduces a wrinkle I had never considered before: what if the consumer could choose the sort of safety they want? If you had to choose between buying a car that would save as many lives as possible and a car that would save you above all other concerns, which would you select? You can imagine that answer would be different for different people and that car companies would build & market cars to appeal to each of them. Perhaps Apple would make a car that places the security of the owner above all else, Google would be a car that would prioritize saving the most lives, and Uber would build a car that keeps the largest Uber spenders alive.1

Ethical concerns like the trolley problem will seem quaint when the full power of manufacturing, marketing, and advertising is applied to self-driving cars. Imagine trying to choose one of the 20 different types of ketchup at the supermarket except that if you choose the wrong one, you and your family die and, surprise, it’s not actually your choice, it’s the potential Trump voter down the street who buys into Car Company X’s advertising urging him to “protect himself” because he feels marginalized in a society that increasingly values diversity over “traditional American values”. I mean, we already see this with huge, unsafe gas-guzzlers driving on the same roads as small, safer, energy-efficient cars, but the addition of software will turbo-charge this process. But overall cars will be much safer so it’ll all be ok?

  1. The bit about Uber is a joke but just barely. You could easily imagine a scenario in which a Samsung car might choose to hit an Apple car over another Samsung car in an accident, all other things being equal.

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