A new op-ed by me, in the Los Angeles Times (with the awesome illustration above, by Wes Bausmith, of car-as-consequentialist-philosopher.
I argue that programming the collision-avoidance software of an autonomous vehicle is an act of applied ethics, which we should bring into the open for the public to assess and for passengers to see and possibly modify within ethical limits.
It's 2025. You and your daughter are riding in a driverless car along Pacific Coast Highway. The autonomous vehicle rounds a corner and detects a crosswalk full of children. It brakes, but your lane is unexpectedly full of sand from a recent rock slide. It can't get traction. Your car does some calculations: If it continues braking, there's a 90% chance that it will kill at least three children. Should it save them by steering you and your daughter off the cliff?
This isn't an idle thought experiment. Driverless cars will be programmed to avoid collisions with pedestrians and other vehicles. They will also be programmed to protect the safety of their passengers. What happens in an emergency when these two aims come into conflict?
Should your autonomous vehicle risk your safety, perhaps even your life, because a reckless motorcyclist chose to speed around a sharp curve?
The California Department of Motor Vehicles is now trying to draw up safety regulations for autonomous vehicles. These regulations might or might not specify when it is acceptable for collision-avoidance programs to expose passengers to risk to avoid harming others — for example, by crossing the double-yellow line or attempting an uncertain maneuver on ice.
Google, which operates most of the driverless cars being street-tested in California, prefers that the DMV not insist on specific functional safety standards. Instead, Google proposes that manufacturers “self-certify” the safety of their vehicles, with substantial freedom to develop collision-avoidance algorithms as they see fit.