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The Ethics Of Saving Lives With Autonomous Cars Are Far Murkier Than You Think

Publication Date: 
July 30, 2013
Patrick Lin

Bryant Walker Smith, a fellow at the Center for Internet and Society, spoke with Wired's Patrick Lin about the complicated ethics of saving lives with autonomous cars and why this issue is part of the "system-boundaries problem."

If you don't listen to Google's robot car, it will yell at you. I’m not kidding: I learned that on my test-drive at a Stanford conference on vehicle automation a couple weeks ago. The car wanted its human driver to retake the wheel, since this particular model wasn’t designed to merge lanes. If we ignored its command a third time, I wondered, would it pull over and start beating us like an angry dad from the front seat? Better to not find out.

No car is truly autonomous yet, so I didn't expect Google's car to drive entirely by itself. But several car companies — such as Audi, BMW, Ford, GM, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Volkswagen, and others — already have models and prototypes today with a surprising degree of driver-assistance automation. We can see "robot" or automated cars (what others have called "autonomous cars", "driverless cars", etc.), coming in our rear-view mirror, and they are closer than they appear.


But, wait. We should also factor in the many more lives that would be spared. A good consequentialist would look at this bigger picture and argue that as long as there’s a net savings of lives (in our case, 16,000 per year) we have a positive, ethical result. And that judgment is consistent with reactions reported by Stanford Law’s Bryant Walker Smith who posed a similar dilemma and found that his audiences remain largely unconcerned when the number of people saved is greater than the number of different lives killed.


This and other examples illustrate the intrinsic, deep complexity in forecasting effects of any given event over time, especially when it comes to "game-changing" technologies such as robotics. In engineering-speak, Bryant Walker Smith calls this part of the "system-boundaries problem."