Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What does a decades-old thought experiment have to do with self-driving cars?

Paul Leroux
Last week, I discussed, ever so briefly, some ethical issues raised by autonomous vehicles — including the argument that introducing them too slowly could be considered unethical!

My post included a video link to the trolley problem, a thought experiment that has long served as a tool for exploring how people make ethical decisions. In its original form, the trolley problem is quite simple: You see a trolley racing down a track on which five people are tied up. Next to you is a lever that can divert the trolley to an empty track. But before you can pull the lever, you notice that someone is, in fact, tied up on the second track. Do you do nothing and let all 5 people die, or do you pull the lever and kill the one person instead?

The trolley problem has undergone criticism for failing to represent real-world problems, for being too artificial. But if you ask Patryk Lin, a Cal Tech professor who has delivered talks to Google and Tesla on the ethics of self-driving cars, it can serve as a helpful teaching tool for automotive engineers — especially if its underlying concept is framed in automotive terms.

Here is how he presents it:

“You’re driving an autonomous car in manual mode—you’re inattentive and suddenly are heading towards five people at a farmer’s market. Your car senses this incoming collision, and has to decide how to react. If the only option is to jerk to the right, and hit one person instead of remaining on its course towards the five, what should it do?”

Of course, autonomous cars, with their better-than-human driving habits (e.g. people tailgate, robot cars don’t) should help prevent such difficult situations from happening in the first place. In the meantime, thinking carefully through this and other scenarios is just one more step on the road to building fully autonomous, and eventually driverless, cars.

Read more about the trolley problem and its application to autonomous cars in a recent article on The Atlantic.

Speaking of robot cars, if you missed last week's webinar on the role of software when transitioning from ADAS to autonomous driving, don't sweat it. It's now available on demand at Techonline.

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