Ethics: The Biggest Hurdle for Self-Driving Vehicles

In October, thousands of Tesla Model S owners across the globe downloaded the Autopilot upgrade, launching the most advanced commercially available driver assistance technology to date. When engaged, Tesla’s Autopilot operates on the highway like cruise control on steroids, using cameras to keep the vehicle within lane markers, radar to maintain safe speed and distance from vehicles ahead, and sonar to sense when to safely change lanes.

And this is just a taste of what’s to come, as a growing number of automakers and technology giants – including Google, Apple and Uber – have entered the race to launch a fully autonomous vehicle by the end of this decade.

But as a machine takes on more and more of a human driver’s responsibility for decision-making – such as selecting the most optimal routes, deciding when to change lanes and determining when to safely pass another vehicle – how will it handle the moral and ethical dilemmas that humans face from time to time?

Consider this scenario: You’re riding in a self-driving car and approaching a busy intersection at 45 mph. With pedestrians congregating at the corner to your right, your car doesn’t detect a child on a bicycle attempting to dart across the street until it’s too late to stop. So, what does your vehicle decide to do?

It could veer to the left into oncoming traffic and avoid the child but instead crash head-on into a car carrying a family of four. It could lurch to the right but risk barreling into a group of eight pedestrians. Or it could hit the child.

What would the machine choose? How would it evaluate its options? And whatever it decided, who or what would be responsible for the consequences?

It’s hard enough as humans to make split-second moral decisions in times of crisis. But at least we have the power at that moment to choose with our conscience. Would we, as a society, be OK with the idea of being spectators inside machines that make life-and-death decisions on our behalf, without our consent?

Engineers are achieving quantum breakthroughs in artificial intelligence that will function as the “brain” for tomorrow’s fully autonomous vehicle. But will they figure out how to give a machine a soul?

Sean M. Lyden


Sean M. Lyden

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