Driverless cars are already being tested on Australian roads. Volvo has held driverless vehicle trials in South Australia, with that state introducing legislation covering driverless vehicles in 2015.
However, ethicists are still grappling with how they would handle in a crash. Should they run over pedestrians to protect the occupants of the car? Or veer off the road to save the pedestrian but kill the car’s passengers?
A new study, published in the journal Science, has found that 76% of people surveyed said it was “more moral” for driverless cars to be programmed to choose to save the lives of pedestrians – even if the only other option was to cause its passengers to die instead.
Most people would like others to buy cars programmed to save the lives of pedestrians, but would themselves prefer to ride in a driverless car that protected its own passengers at all costs, the researchers found.
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The results were drawn from six online surveys of 1928 people in the US between June and November 2015.
“Over the six studies the results were the same: people always had a strong moral opinion,” said researcher Jean-François Bonnefon. He said neither he nor his research team colleagues, Iyad Rahwan and Azzim Shariff, expected people would have such a strong and “utilitarian” approval of self-sacrifice.
Survey participants were asked to imagine they were passengers in an autonomous vehicle (AV) programmed to minimise the number of casualties in an accident, then rank how moral it was for the car to choose to sacrifice them to save pedestrians. They were then asked to rate their preference on a scale ranging from self-protection to a response aimed at saving the lives of others.
“Before, these kinds of moral dilemmas had no urgency but now we find ourselves having to decide,” said Bonnefon.
The study showed that the number of lives saved influenced how moral people thought the AV was and, in turn, increased the confidence people had in their answer.