Can a car weigh up which human life is worth more: that of the child that runs out into the road or of the old woman the car would hit if it swerved to avoid the child? Or that of the driver? This is the great dilemma facing programmers, researchers and philosophers when they consider the future of roads filled with self-driven vehicles.

During an interview at the Paris Motor Show 2016 a senior manager from Daimler, engineer Christoph von Hugo, argued that in case of doubt the driver should be saved. His employers took a different view and stated in a press release shortly afterwards, “Neither programmers nor automated systems are entitled to weigh up human lives.“ Ethical questions may not be answered by individuals, but must instead be decided by broad and international discussion. Judging the value of one life as more worthy of protection than another also runs contrary to the German understanding of the law.

© Daimler AG
© Daimler AG

Ethics commission for computer decisions

In autumn 2016 an ethics commission for computer-controlled cars was established in Germany to consider topics like these. The government committee is intended to develop guidelines on how self-driven cars should react in risk situations. Traffic Minister Alexander Dobrindt explains, “What is clear is that property damage is always to be preferred over personal injury. And that there can be no classification of persons, for instance according to size, age or anything of that kind.“

To what extent there can ever be consensus on ethical questions in traffic situations is an issue being investigated in a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This is asking respondents to consider the following dilemma: who should be run down according to moral standards? Does someone who ignores a red light deserve to die more than someone who is complying with the rules of the road – even if that person may be a bank robber? The respondents have time to think and weigh up. Time that a human driver in a real situation does not have. The results of the study reveal the dilemma at the heart of the whole discussion: 76 percent of respondents would rather the car endanger the lives of the persons in the car if this could save the lives of ten passersby. On the other hand, only a third of those people would buy a car programmed in such a way.