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May 22, 2017 | by  | in Super Science Trends | [ssba]

Super Science Trends: To the Autono-mobile!

There’s an old writing adage that a good sci-fi writer imagines the car, but the great sci-fi writer imagines the traffic jam. And now that we’re beginning to make science fiction into science reality, we have to start working out how to prevent those traffic jams before they happen. When it comes to self-driving cars (or autonomous vehicles, if you’re fancy), this isn’t even a metaphor. If we’re going to give our cars intelligence to avoid accidents, we have to give serious thought to how they are going to use it to keep us safe.

Currently, Uber and Google are both in the process of rolling out their own autonomous vehicles, and most Tesla cars come preprogrammed with an Autopilot(™), which uses a combination of cameras, radar, and ultrasonics to give a complete 360° view around itself, like a cyborg dolphin on steroids. The car can “see” perfectly through rain, fog, snow, and even past the cars around it, allowing it to judge its perimeters to avoid pedestrians and obstacles to decrease the risk of accidents — you would never have to worry about drunk drivers ever again. But this won’t stop accidents from happening altogether, and this is where we get into Rick and Morty territory.

Every first year philosophy student and their cornered relative has heard of the trolley problem, the thought experiment where you are faced with choosing the path of an out-of-control rail tram. There are five people tied to the tracks ahead of the trolley, but there is an alternate track with one person on it. You have the choice to either do nothing and let the trolley barrel through and kill five people, or flip a switch that will divert the trolley’s path to the other track and kill only one person. While it’s likely you’ll never be in this situation in your life, the trolley hypothetical becomes a reality when considering the ethics of the self-driving car.

For instance, if an autonomous vehicle carrying passengers was approaching a crossing and its brakes failed, the car could make one of two choices: either (1) swerve to avoid crossing pedestrians, hit a wall, and potentially kill its passengers, or (2) run over the pedestrians and continue on its path, leaving its passengers unharmed (at least, physically). The car’s designers will need to program it’s software to solve these ethical issues in real time, giving thought experiment concrete answers, putting philosophers out of a job (not that they have any anyway, hey-oooooo!).*

If you really want to have to some fun with this and/or question everything about your own interpersonal ethics, MIT set up a website called the Moral Machine ( where you get to play the role of an autonomous vehicle and decide which out of two deadly scenarios you find most ethical to live with, with some ridiculous but not entirely implausible qualifiers. Would you run over two doctors and a fat person to spare your passengers of two cats, a dog, and a pregnant woman, or collide with a wall to spare the pedestrians, but kill your passengers? It’s the trolley problem ad absurdum, but it raises some interesting questions about what we prioritise in our personal ethics and what sacrifices we’re willing to make in the name of safety.

So if we really want to make self-driving cars succeed, we’ll also need to make them into philosophers. Next time you go to your dealership, you may have to choose between a Sun Subaru, a Rene De-Car, or a David Vrume.


*Jokes, I minored in Philosophy for BSc points so I am One To Talk.


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