6/25/2015 | 1 MINUTE READ

Life and Death Questions About Autonomous Cars

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Autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle technologies promise to greatly improve safety, reduce traffic congestion and generally make driving much easier for motorists.

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Autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle technologies promise to greatly improve safety, reduce traffic congestion and generally make driving much easier for motorists. But they also pose serious ethical questions involving life-and-death decisions, risks and liabilities, Reuters notes.

To better understand the issues and potential consequences, carmakers are turning to ethicists and philosophers. Several leading companies also have begun working with Stanford University's Center for Automotive Research, which Reuters says is programming cars to make ethical decisions. These could include:

  • whether a vehicle should swerve to avoid an accident if doing so may put other people in danger.
  • if the number of lives at stake takes precedence over the safety of the driver and his or her passengers.
  • does one life that of child or special interest person outweigh the value of another's life.
  • at what level of probability and risk should autonomous controls take over.
Reuters says top executives from Ford and GM recently met with Chris Gerdes, who runs the Stanford lab in Silicon Valley. Jeff Greenberg, Ford's senior technical leader for human-machine interface, tells the news service that the auto industry must answer ethical questions before implementing self-driving cars.

The Stanford team will begin testing automated vehicles this summer on a racetrack in northern California. The vehicles will have to make quick ethical decisions, such as when it's okay to disregard traffic laws to avoid bicyclists and other obstacles, according to Reuters.

Gerdes also is working with Toyota on how and when it is appropriate to transfer control between a vehicle and its driver, Reuters says. Noting that machines lack empathy and the ability to understand complex nuances, some ethicists argue that humans should always be in the loop and robots should never be responsible for making a life and death decision.