Who lives, who dies? The life-and-death decisions that autonomous vehicles might have to make

Autonomous vehicles could have to make life-and-death decisions that more than a third of drivers would prefer not to think about until they happen. More than half (59%) say that, should they be the 'passenger' in a fully autonomous vehicle, and it had no choice but to crash, it should put them at risk if the alternatives risked more lives according to a survey by the AA. Surprisingly, more people were willing to put themselves at risk of death if they themselves were the passenger, as opposed to a generic ‘passenger’ travelling in the car (54%). 

The AA-Populus Driver Poll of more than 21,000, found that one in 20 felt the vehicle should hit someone else. Respondents had the option to select a collision involving two children who had run into the road, or with two elderly pedestrians walking on the pavement. Highlighting the difficulty software developers will have over these decisions, many people felt they were unable to determine what action the car should take (40% and 34% respectively). The reaction time of autonomous vehicles, helped by sensors, cameras and radar systems is likely to be faster than those of a human driver. An autonomous vehicle is also more likely to see potential hazards further ahead, and travel within the speed limit. The question was asked in the context of the ongoing consultation by the Law Commission into Automated Vehicles. The question is a form of “The Trolley Problem” scenario that challenges ethical decisions in a life or death situation. In Germany, the ethics for autonomous vehicles makes clear that in the event of an unavoidable collision, any distinction based on personal features, such as age, gender and ethnicity are strictly prohibited. Edmund King, AA president says; “Autonomous cars should create opportunities for people who struggle to access consistent forms of mobility, like the elderly and disabled. “These vehicles will have so much technology that one should never find itself in this kind of situation. 

“Of those who could make a choice, a clear majority decided to put themselves in danger perhaps indicating they accept the risks and potential fallibilities of the technology. “‘The Driverless Dilemma’ is a common question for programmers of autonomous vehicles, but the number of people who avoided giving a definitive answer shows this is a difficult ‘live or let die’ dilemma. “Drivers and pedestrians will want to know that fully autonomous vehicles have been rigorously tested to ensure fatalities are prevented and scenarios like these are avoided.” 

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