Turns out people are really interested in robots trying to kill them, so tons of articles on the web that basically all say the same thing: Self-driving cars are a real-life version of the Trolley Problem. And with that, everyone’s a philosopher.
They mostly get their info from the research of Patrick Lin, but as you’ll see from my incomplete list of literal autonomous auto cyber paranoia, this is an issue that has been discussed, at length, ad nauseaum, since 2011 and likely before.
If you feel compelled to write an article about self-driving cars and the Trolley Problem, be aware you are not the first to do so.
I would go as far as saying this particular meandering path of reasoning now looks more like an 8-lane highway. And as with most highways, it is urging us to pass by all the most important aspects of the conversation on our way to a foregone conclusion.
My thoughts (you should skip this)
People have asked me to write an article about self-driving cars and the Trolley Problem for years. Because I’ve been talking about it for years. Because as a philosopher, nothing is more gratifying than seeing a favored thought experiment made real. Anyway. This is that article, though I won’t discuss the Trolley Problem in detail (just buy David Edmonds’ book Would You Kill the Fat Man instead. Support philosophy. It matters).
Here’s the skinny: Self-driving cars are coming. They are already on our roads in one form or another, and they are going to make our roads orders of magnitude safer than they are right now. However, in doing so, the manufacturers must also come face-to-face with a quandary that has perplexed philosophers, psychologists, and other studiers of human behavior for the last century and a half: When faced with a decision to kill one person or another, how do we choose?
This problem has many names, most famously the “Trolley Problem” or the “Fat Man”. Any student dabbling in philosophy will have encountered it.
So here, before I rattle off an incomplete, continuously updated list of articles about murderous self-driving cars and the Trolley Problem, let me give you my abridged opinion on the matter, in point form for easy digestion. I advise you to skip this. It’s pointless:
The Future History of Autonomous Autos
- Self-driving cars will start hitting our roads within the next 5 years.
- When they do, there will be a lot of minor, but highly publicized accidents of a trivial nature.
- Within a year of self-driving cars becoming legal, there will be a fatality.
- A lawsuit will ensue where the family / friends / estate / insurance company of the deceased(the Claimants) sue the car manufacturer for the death.
- The car manufacturer will claim it was an accident.
- The Claimant will accurately point out that the death was a foregone conclusion resulting from a programmatic decision of a moral issue (The Trolley Problem).
- Depending on the judge and jury, whatever outcome this first case has will become precedence setting for autonomous automata like self-driving cars, planes, bikes, whatevers in the future.
- For this reason, enormous pressure will be put on the judge and/or jury to rule in favor of the car manufacturer.
- A public outcry will result when the court rules in favor of the car manufacturer.
- Conspiracy theorists will claim self-driving cars are part of a government conspiracy to cull the population. They are wrong. Self-driving cars are part of a corporate conspiracy to get us to be exposed to more advertising through watching more TV and surfing the internet while driving. I digress.
- As more self-driving cars come online, road accidents decrease.
- When the majority of vehicles on the road are self-driving (around year 2280 or so), road accidents are so rare they get special news coverage.
- Years later, historians will write about the rise of machine intelligence and how it all started with self-driving cars.
The Self-Driving Trolley Problem Echo Chamber: A Chronology of Repeated Ideas
- 4 Questions About Google’s Self-Driving Car Crash – Mary Beth Griggs, Popular Mechanics, 08/11/2011
- Leave the Driving to the Car, and Reap Benefits in Safety and Mobility – Sebastian Thrun, The New York Times, 12/05/2011
- Study of the Day: Almost Everyone Would Kill 1 Person to Save 5 – Hans Villarcia, The Atlantic, 12/21/2011
- Let The Robot Drive: The Autonomous Car of the Future Is Here – Tom Vanderbilt, Wired, 01/20/2012
- Automated Vehicles are Probably Legal in the United States – Bryant Walker Smith, Stanford Law School Center for Internet and Society, 11/01/2012
- Why You Shouldn’t Be too Quick to Cheer Self-Driving Cars – Cord Jefferson, Gizmodo, 01/10/2013
- Relying on Algorithms and Bots Can Be Really, Really Dangerous – Clive Thompson, Wired, 03/25/2013
- When Autonomous Cars Kill Somebody – Chris Fox, Product, Design & Development, 07/02/2013
- The Ethics of Saving Lives with Autonomous Cars Is Far Murkier Than You Think – Patrick Lin, Wired, 07/30/2013
- The Ethics of Autonomous Cars – Patrick Lin, The Atlantic, 10/08/2013
- Avoiding Crashes with Self-Driving Cars – ConsumerReports, 02/2014
- The Robot Car of Tomorrow May Just Be Programmed To Hit You – Patrick Lin, Wired, 05/06/2014
- Should Your Driverless Car Kill You To Save Two Other People? – Eric Limer, Gizmodo, 05/12/2014
- The Mathematics of Murder: Should a Robot Sacrifice Your Life to Save Two? – Eric Sofge, Popular Science, 05/12/2014
- Should Robot Cars Be Programmed to Kill You if it Will Save More Lives? – Huffington Post UK, 05/13/2014
- An Ethical Dilemma: When Robot Cars Must Kill, Who Should Pick the Victim? – Jason Miller, Robohub, 06/11/2014
- If Death by Autonomous Car is Unavoidable, Who Should Die? Reader Poll Results – Open Robotics Initiative, 06/23/2014
- Robotic Cars and the Future of Auto Accident Liability – Jared Staver, Staver Law Group, 07/29/2014
- If Driverless Cars Save Lives, Where Will We Get Organs? – Erin Griffith, Fortune, 08/15/2014
- Here’s a Terrible Idea: Robot Cars with Adjustable Ethics Settings – Patrick Lin, Wired, 08/18/2014
- Who Should Be the Self-Driving Car’s Moral Compass? – Doug Newcomb, PC World, 08/22/2014
- An Autonomous Car Might Decide You Should Die – Mitch Turck, Medium/Backchannel, 03/10/2015
- Self-Driving Cars and the Trolley Problem – Tanya Jaipuria, Medium, 05/23/2015 (also published on Huffington Post under the same title)
- The Self-Driving Trolley Problem – Alex Wall, Political Animal Magazine, 06/2015
- Will Your Self-Driving Car be Programmed to Kill You if it Means Saving More Strangers? – Science Daily, 06/15/2015
- How to Help Self-Driving Cars Make Ethical Decisions – Will Knight, MIT Technology Review, 07/29/2015
- Would You Buy a Car That’s Programmed to Kill You? You Just Might – Jerry Kaplan, Big Think, 09/2015
- Volvo Says It Will Take the Blame If One of It’s Self-Driving Cars Crashes – Chris Ziegler, The Verge, 10/07/2015
- Autonomous Vehicles Need Experimental Ethics: are We Ready for Utilitarian Cars? (pdf) – Bonnefon, Shariff, Rahwan, et.al – 10/13/2015
- Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed to Kill – MIT Technology Review, 10/22/2015
- Part of Designing Self-Driving Cars Will Be Teaching Them to Kill – George Kennedy, Yahoo! Autos, 10/24/2015
- Your Driverless Car Could Be Programmed to Kill You – Ben Ellman, Science of Us, 10/28/2015
- Should Driverless Cars Kill Their Own Passengers to Save a Pedestrian? – Olivia Goldhill, 11/01/2015
- Google’s Chief for Self-Driving Cars Downplays “The Trolley Problem” – Matt McFarland, The Washington Post, 12/01/2015
- Will Your Driverless Car Kill You So That Others May Live? – Eric Schwitzgebel, The Splintered Mind, 12/07/2015
- The Ethical Dilemma of Self-Driving Cars (video) – Patrick Lin, TEDEd, 12/08/2015
- The Problem with Self-Driving CarsL Who Controls the Code? – Cory Doctorow, The Guardian, 12/23/2015
- If You Think Self-Driving Cars Have a Trolley Problem, You’re Asking the Wrong Questions – Cory Doctorow, BoingBoing, 12/23/2015
- Driverless Cars are Colliding with the Creepy Trolley Problem – Joel Achenbach, The Washington Post, 12/29/2015
- Self-Driving Cars and the Trolley Problem: Can Your Autonomous Car Sacrifice You? – Jemima Mayers, Limo Digest, 01/02/2016
- The Ethics of Self-Driving Cars – Jonathan Erhardt, Crucial Considerations, 01/13/2016
- Self-Driving Cars: 5 Things We Need to Get Right – Amit Garg, Medium, 02/25/2016
- Self-Driving Cars and the Kobayashi Maru – Andrew Heikkila, TechCrunch, 02/27/2016
- Google’s bus crash is changing the conversation around self-driving cars – Nick Statt, The Verge, 03/15/2016
Help build the list to save the web from more of these articles
Have you come across yet another “I just discovered the Trolley Problem and am now convinced self-driving cars are out to kill us” article I have not listed here? Add it in the comments and I’ll put it up.