Mercedes-Benz ‘solves’ intractable problem in philosophical ethics

xkcd: trolley problem

From an article in Car and Driver: 

The technology is new, but the moral conundrum isn’t: A self-driving car identifies a group of children running into the road. There is no time to stop. To swerve around them would drive the car into a speeding truck on one side or over a cliff on the other, bringing certain death to anybody inside.

This (the Trolley Problem) is taught as a staple in university Philosophy departments around the world. I can remember grappling with it as an undergraduate. Your answer betrays a particular approach to ethics. Without getting into the weeds, are you an intentionalist or a consequentialist? It’s a great jumping-off point for discussion.

With the advent of self-driving cars, however, it’s no longer just a thought experiment. These cars have to be programmed to act in a certain way. Here’s what Mercedes-Benz have opted to do:

The world’s oldest carmaker no longer sees the problem… as unanswerable. Rather than tying itself into moral and ethical knots in a crisis, Mercedes-Benz simply intends to program its self-driving cars to save the people inside the car. Every time.

All of Mercedes-Benz’s future Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous cars will prioritize saving the people they carry, according to Christoph von Hugo, the automaker’s manager of driver assistance systems and active safety.

“If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car,” Hugo said in an interview at the Paris auto show. “If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.”

Car makers get sued all of the time, so apparently to ensure a self-driving version of Carmageddon doesn’t stand in the way of autonomous vehicles, apparently both Audi and Volvo have stated that they “will assume full legal responsibility for any crashes or fatalities”.

I, for one, welcome our self-driving overlords. Who needs Philosophy when you can pre-program cars to save one-percenters? 😉