The Moral Dilemmas of Self-Driving Vehicles

If you could save five lives for the cost of one person’s life, would you?  What about saving five lives by murdering one person?  These are thought-provoking moral dilemmas explored in the podcast “Driverless Dilemma” on the National Public Radio show Radiolab, which was originally broadcast on September 26, 2017.   Most people say “yes” to the first question and “no” to the second.  Such answers also raise questions like is such morality taught by society or ingrained through thousands of years of behavioral experience?

Why should you care?  Two words (three if you ignore the hyphen): self-driving vehicles.  These are on the horizon, and they will have profound implications for our society.  Not only will vehicle operators lose their jobs, but who will need truck stops and motels?  Will our wheeled transportation evolve into other uses?  You want to work out on your road trip, so you order a mobile gym.  A three-hour trip would be downright entertaining in a mobile theater.

But getting back to the dilemma part — how will these vehicles be programmed to respond to emergencies?  If a child runs out in front of your car, will it react by swerving into a brick wall, saving the child but putting your life in jeopardy?  What if vehicles are able to communicate with each other — if a collusion is imminent, which one swerves off the road?  The car with the fewest children?  Will you decide to buy a car based on how the manufacturer has programmed it to make these kinds of decisions?  Will the programming be different for a Buddhist country, as opposed to a Christian country?

Of course, these kinds of life-saving decisions will almost certainly be very rare.  It will be well worth adopting driverless technology just to get the drunks off the road.  But still….

Someone is going to have to think this through.

“Driverless Dilemma” is at  The photo came from that website.


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