Driverless cars are a futuristic conception that full-on exists in the here and now. They are still in the experimental phase, but development looks promising. In no time, you may get to paint your nails while your robo-car zooms you to work. That’s a cheery image, isn’t it . . . until your car purposefully KILLS YOU!
It's not because it has developed a deep and abiding hatred for your opposable thumbs and ability to feel love. Rather, its programming could determine scenarios in which you might die so that others may live. Welcome to the uncertain world of robo-lifeboat ethics.
We're all keen on the idea of driverless cars correcting for human error. Reducing traffic jams, minimizing accidents, potentially eliminating the need for parking—there’s a lot to like. But when we go down that mechanistic rabbit hole, murky scenarios are bound to arise.
“A front tire blows, and your autonomous SUV swerves. But rather than veering left, into the opposing lane of traffic, the robotic vehicle steers right. Brakes engage, the system tries to correct itself, but there's too much momentum. Like a cornball stunt in a bad action movie, you are over the cliff, in free fall. Your robot, the one you paid good money for, has chosen to kill you.”
Granted, the car is just a vector of its programming, so there’s plenty of other people to point the finger at: The programmer, executives at the tech company, legislators that could enact driverless car policies . . . Should these split second on-the-road decisions be left up to them, leaving drivers powerless over their own fate? Could people potentially hack into their own car to make sure it’s always on their side? Could this screw over everyone else, whose cars wouldn’t be primed to make that assumption? This is getting real dicey, real quick.
It's all speculation at this point, but it seems clear that to one degree or another we are set to enter the world of robo-ethics in the near future. We can only hope that whichever way things pan out philosophically, surely tech-whizzes will come up with some fittingly advanced safeguards for unwitting passengers. Are ejection seats with parachutes too much? Because the cliff drop turns into a lovely sight-seeing tour with those puppies in action.