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Boondocksaint  Oct 20, 2015 • 9:31:36am

I enjoyed reading your perspective on this issue. If self driving cars become the norm, it is inevitable that they will eventually cause deaths due to computer error. In my opinion, these deaths will be acceptable if they are a fraction of the death’s caused by humans.

The real question comes when self-driving cars become thousands of times safer then human driven cars. Should people be allowed to drive then?

Whack-A-Mole  Oct 20, 2015 • 11:08:59am

You’re right, these deaths will be far fewer than happen on our roads currently. But it’s actually not the chance of computer error that piques my interest on the topic; errors are going to happen as they do with any technology.

It’s the issues revolving around the computer operating as intended that interests me: how the programmers came to make the decisions they did in the code that will have life and death consequences for people, how they prioritize safety and, more to the point, whose safety they prioritize.

In the example I gave above (which I think is a pretty realistic scenario), whose safety should the code prioritize? The unprotected child that ran out into the street? Or will the manufacturer and programmers prioritize the safety of the customer who bought and paid for the car even though, protected inside the vehicle, they’re at a lower risk of serious injury?

Like I said, I’m actually looking forward to the technology being implemented. The topic just really sparked my thinking about the ethical issues involved.

gdalpert  Oct 20, 2015 • 1:51:27pm

It’s an interesting question. There’s also a decision to be made about speed…does the vehicle slam-on the brakes, even though there’s a human driver behind you, who probably will rear-end you? I suppose, the solution with the least risk to the auto-maker is to mimic the decision making that a live driver would do. I think, by reflex, most drivers would swerve to the right. But, I also suspect that, as you say, the computers will ‘see’ more threats earlier than a human driver, and will be able to avoid far more of those accidents.

I have to think that we will need to develop standard algorithms. The cars will need that in order to predict how other self-driving cars will react. That would also give the auto-makers some legal protection (industry standards) in your scenario.

KGxvi  Oct 20, 2015 • 3:01:57pm

Perhaps it’s because I actually generally enjoy driving (this is what happens when you grow up in Southern California), but the idea of a self-driving car just seems horrible to me. Then again, am not a fan of most “modern conveniences” in cars - they take so much of the skill out of driving. With respect to the ethics question, that’s one of the first things I asked (as did Hammond on Top Gear) - what happens when the choices are child on the street, oncoming traffic, or elderly pedestrian? And, I ask in all seriousness, will a computer be able to complete the necessary evasive driving as well as a well-skilled driver could?

Whack-A-Mole  Oct 20, 2015 • 4:07:04pm

re: #4 KGxvi

With respect to the ethics question, that’s one of the first things I asked (as did Hammond on Top Gear) - what happens when the choices are child on the street, oncoming traffic, or elderly pedestrian?

That’s one of the thoughts that prompted me to post the page. More specifically, who makes that choice? How and why will they choose what they do?

The ethical questions involved, on a theoretical level, fascinate me.

Charles Johnson  Oct 20, 2015 • 5:57:47pm

I suspect that the overall safety of self-driving cars will be much more important than the edge cases where their programming can’t do a perfect job, because human beings don’t handle these cases any better - in fact, humans usually do a terrible job of handling high-speed decisions. There are always going to be situations like these, but self-driving cars have the potential to make them much less frequent.

Whack-A-Mole  Oct 20, 2015 • 7:37:41pm

Oh there’s no doubt at all in my mind that the overall safety of driving and the number of fatal crashes is going to plummet when this tech becomes widely available. I’m in no way, shape, or form arguing against the implementation of driverless cars; the sooner they come, the better as far as I’m concerned. I don’t really have any concerns about the tech so to speak; it’s just that the ethical considerations intrigue me on an intellectual level.

I mean, people in a range of fields, doctors, police, soldiers, etc. make life or death decisions every day. There are definitely times where they have to decide who lives and who dies. But those are generally immediate decisions, with them on hand to see and experience the consequences of the choice. With driverless cars, the decisions will be made months or years beforehand by people who will never have to see the results of those choices. How do they do that? How do they make those choices? What factors are considered in the prioritization of the safety of the owner versus the safety of other vehicles or pedestrians?

I think part of the fascination comes from the fact that I have never wanted or desired that kind of life or death power over others. That burden of responsibility and the thought of living with the results of my choices would terrify me.

Charles, I know you do a lot of coding. As a programmer, would you want to be part of the project and make those decisions? How would you go about it?

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