Whom should an autonomous car protect: the driver or a pedestrian?
Accidents are an unfortunate consequence of driving, and, so far, even autonomous software can’t prevent them. The ethics of accident avoidance is becoming one of the drawbacks of self-driving cars. When a human is driving, he or she can quickly process information and make a decision that, hopefully, results in the least amount of harm. Most of us would take any means of avoidance necessary to avoid hitting another person.
Self-driving cars, on the other hand, may be programmed to protect the driver at all costs…even if it means a pedestrian’s life.
Mercedes-Benz is the first automaker, that we know of, to prioritize driver safety over a pedestrian’s well-being. The ethical conundrum of how computer-operated vehicles should act in life-or-death situations has received more scrutiny as driverless cars become a reality. But, the car manufacturer believes that it’s safer to save the life it has greater control over.
Christoph von Hugo, Mercedes-Benz’s manager of driver assistance systems, told Car and Driver,
If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car. If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.
Mercedes is the first automaker to publicly take a stand on this issue and seems completely unapologetic about its position. However, the company also said the vast majority of its engineering work is to prevent these situations from happening at all and to avoid any potential collision scenario.
We all know that it’s impossible to avoid all accidents. They will happen, and people will lose their lives, regardless of the engineering. The moral dilemma that autonomous cars have created isn’t one that will be easily addressed. Whether Mercedes’s approach is correct is a matter of opinion, and we’ll see how it conforms with future government regulations. Popular opinion might dictate that cars sacrifice their occupants in place of a pedestrian.
Audi and Volvo have both said they will take full legal responsibility for crashes or fatalities in its upcoming autonomous vehicles, though we don’t know if their cars will be programmed similarly to Mercedes vehicles.
Would you buy a car if you knew it would prioritize your safety over a pedestrian’s?