Driving the debate

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SENSORY PERCEPTION: A Velodyne LiDAR sensor mounted on a self-driving vehicle. Credit: @REZ_777/Twitter

PEOPLE believe self-driving cars should spare young people over the elderly, a study has found.

Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published in the journal Nature, found that respondents were most likely to want an autonomous car heading for a crash to prioritise humans over pets, and to spare young people and large groups where possible.

The university’s Moral Machine test involved asking millions of respondents across 233 countries what their ethical preferences were.

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In the exercise, users were shown unavoidable accident simulations and had asked to choose the morally preferable outcome by deciding whether the vehicle should swerve or stay on course.

However, programming driverless cars with preferences based on age, gender, physical or mental constitution would go against rules drawn up last year by the German ethics commission.

It concluded that “any distinction between individuals based on personal features is impermissible.”

But the research warned that manufacturers who do not programme cars to save children over older people should prepare themselves for the “strong backlash that will inevitably occur the day an autonomous vehicle sacrifices children in a dilemma situation.”

A pram was most likely to be spared, with a girl the second most likely, followed by a boy and a pregnant woman.

Those least likely to be spared were cats, criminals and dogs.

There is even potential for a backlash from owners who want their car to prioritise their life over all others.

Although companies like Google, Uber and Tesla have all begun testing the technology, fully self-driving cars are still in development and not yet available to own.

One thing is for certain, the philosophical and ethical debates around this will continue.

 

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