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Roadblock: The Ethics Behind Autonomous Cars

Both Tesla and Google, among other notable tech companies, have generated media buzz in the past few years with the extensive testing of their autonomous car technologies on the road. In a recent YouTube video, one of Tesla’s vehicles was shown to detect an impeding two car collision, and reacted accordingly seconds before the actual collision. Despite the media buzz and speculation about the impacts these cars could have on safety, questions surrounding the ethics of these autonomous cars have persisted.

The past few months have seen notable developments in the ethics behind autonomous cars. In October 2016, Mercedes-Benz executive Cristoph von Hugo said that Mercedes autonomous cars will prioritize the life and safety of their passengers in scenarios where automated systems must choose between the safety of passengers and that of pedestrians or bystanders.

Such scenarios echo the popular Trolley Problem, a thought experiment in which an individual must decide to either allow a trolley to run over a series of innocent people, or flip a switch to have the trolley run over fewer people. In the case of autonomous cars, a computer system rather than a person makes the moral decision. This distinction is significant in dictating public comfort regarding autonomous cars, and thus the future of these products in the market.

A 2016 MIT paper in Science examined people’s opinions regarding this issue, and found that people were likely to say cars should minimize the number of lives lost, whether that means jeopardizing a driver and passenger to save five others or vice versa. Despite this belief, a majority of those surveyed also said they would not want to purchase a car which could decide to put their own life at risk.

Other developments in autonomous car technology include Ford’s recent investment of $1 billion over the next five years into Argo, a quasi-independent section of the company intended to develop and launch a commercial autonomous vehicle by 2021, and led by engineers from Uber and Google. This promise is unmatched by any other major automaker.

Weinberg freshman Betty Yu had another insight on the possible economic and societal changes associated with self – driving cars. “There could be a regional and generational split,” Yu said, indicating that there would be no nationwide adoption of this trend. “I think autonomous cars would be more likely to attract millennials and those associated with Silicon Valley, while older and rural Americans could be less eager to catch on.”

(Image Courtesy of TechZulu)

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