The ethics of the driverless car

12.00 | 28 January 2014 | | 2 comments

An American commentator has written an interesting piece for the BBC News website and the Radio 4 programme A Point of View, about the ethics of the driverless car.

The piece is by Adam Gopnik, a non-driver who writes for The New Yorker.

In the piece Mr Gopnik says that the “problem” with driverless cars is that “human drivers are engaged every day not just in navigating roads, but also in making ethical decisions as they drive”.

He cites examples such as swerving to avoid an animal, and taking a little more risk to avoid a pet such as a cat or dog than, for example, a rat or squirrel.

He goes on to suggest that “even graver ethical choices regularly arise” such as “a choice between mowing down a couple of bystanders and ploughing into a school bus packed with children”.

Click here to read the full article – there is also a link on this page to listen to ‘A Point of View’ on the iPlayer.


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    The problem with driverless cars is that they can only follow pre-programed rules yet a great deal of the driving task is governed by creativity and not rule following.

    The best illustration of this is when employees go on a ‘work to rule’ in persuance of some dispute or other. Pretty soon the entire system descends into utter chaos as people find that there is no rule or combination of rules that is appropriate to every situation that may arise.

    When questioned as to what happens if the driverless car cannot manage a particular situation (no rule) we are told that the car will ‘hand back’ control to the driver so that they can sort it out. In aviation we call this an automation surprise and it is perhaps the most dangerous of all the situations faced by pilots because of the suddeness with which the surprise occurs. With no idea of the chain of events that has happened before the hand-over the poor pilots have an immense struggle to make sense of the situation let alone do anything about it.

    Driverless cars show a great deal of promise, but there is a long way to go before they will be anywhere near safe enough to operate in the same environment as human controlled vehicles.

    Duncan MacKillop, Stratford on Avon
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    Makes interesting reading and no doubt echoes a lot of people’s fears of driverless cars – mine included.

    On the plus side, driverless cars may not have the built-in undesirable weaknesses of some human drivers i.e. recklessness, carelessness, ego, arrogance, etc. – but on the down-side, will they be able to match humans’ capacity for thought, consideration, courtesy, anticipation etc. which are still essential for good everyday driving? Would they be programmed to analyse and react to anything that moves within its range of vision as we can, or would they be ‘blind’ to certain situations? If ‘driving’ alongside parked vehicles, would it compute the possibility that an unseen toddler or animal could emerge into its path and slow itself down in anticipation as human drivers would, or would it only react when it actually ‘sees’ it, when it may be too late?

    Hugh Jones, Cheshire
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