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Ethics of Autonomous Vehicles-SPCB

2015/12/29      view:


Ethics of Autonomous Vehicles

By Paul Golata for Mouser Electronics 

Mankind is driven by a preoccupation with technology. Nowhere is this seen more than in the area of transportation. Railroads, airplanes, and automobiles have been a major driver of new technology and innovation–filling the pages of history with many historic firsts. What was set in motion by the forefathers of invention–James Watt, the Wright Brothers, Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach–continues to propel our imaginations ever forward. With unquantiable millions of transportation vehicles in operation today, one of the highest priority concerns relates to improving occupant safety and overall vehicle operating efficiency. To help improve the quality of this transportation, mankind has proceeded by implementing mechanical, electrical, electro-optical, and more recently artificial intelligence (AI) technology into these vehicles. Yet what are the ethical implications involved with a future where electronics and AI technology take over much or most of 

the responsible agency control of vehicles from humans in an attempt to have modes of transportation that are safer and more efficient because they are operating from an autonomous technology system (ATS)? Such an AI will require a sufficiently defined technology platform that allows it to function relatively autonomously. Part of this system will include how it makes ethical decisions in order to promote well-being and reduce and eliminate harm.


Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS)

Fighter pilots today are surrounded with a full complement of computers and artificial intelligence that assists them with flying one of the highest performance vehicles man is presently capable of designing. AI is largely in control of the particulars of the plane with the pilot being in the position of the ultimate and overriding control agent allowing him to adapt and take over control as needed. In the future, the continuing development in electronics and AI technology portends for more common items such as automobiles to have many similarities regarding the overall agency control of the vehicle.


Presently, many electronic technology companies that support the automotive industry are squarely focused on addressing the technical needs of Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS), by developing both adaptive and predictive systems and components that will allow for better and safer driving. ADAS assists the agents in charge of the vehicle by providing warnings or taking actions to reduce risk or through the automation of some portion of the control task of operating the vehicle so that safety and performance are improved. The current state of ADAS is largely cooperative with the driver: that is, the human-to-machine interface in ADAS functions as part of the overall agent control of the vehicle with the human still maintaining the overall responsibility for the vehicle. It is expected that over time, developments in technology will be successful in having more and more agency and control of the vehicle moved into the ADAS. It is anticipated that ADAS may ultimately develop further into autonomous systems that will offer a superior level of intelligence and the ability to respond quicker and with greater beneficial results than when a human agent is the controlling driver.

The Autonomous Vehicle

Improvements in electronics and AI technology come from the use of brain power to discover new products and less costly methods of production. It is the dream of many that future technological advancements will allow for completely autonomous vehicles to dominate the roadways of the world. These autonomous vehicles would be programmed to avoid accidents and damage to passengers as well as collateral damage, while simultaneously being programmed to optimize efficiencies in travel by optimizing various performance factors of the vehicle on-the-go so as to minimize expenses and maximize the functional utility of the vehicle.

Ethics of Autonomous Vehicles

There is no doubt that everyone desires vehicles to operate safely and efficiently for all concerned. In operating a vehicle upon today’s roadways, the laws currently on the books place the responsibility squarely on the human driver to ensure that everyone’s well-being, both inside the car and outside the car, are protected and that harm does not come to oneself or others.

It is possible to conceive of an automobile as a tool whose primary function is to get people from Point A to Point B safely and efficiently. However, there is little doubt that a vehicle can also be operated by an agent and used for vicious purposes, such as a murder weapon, where it is used to run down people as people attempt to cross the street.

This is where a proper understanding of ethics must come into view. Ethical judgments are invariably a tricky subject as they bring into play at least three different factors or perspectives including (a) a standard of judging or norm, (b) a contextual situation and environment, and (c) the relationship and impact relative to a person, both internally and externally. Failure to take into account all of these various factors appropriately and correctly may lead to a reductionistic and non-optimal ethical judgment.

If agency and responsibility are to become increasingly less dependent on the individual driver’s performance in operating the vehicle and increasingly more reliant on technologies such as ADAS and ultimately ATS located in vehicles, then how is society to handle the potential change in agent responsibility as it shifts from the individual operating the vehicle toward the vehicle itself? The logical answer is the manufacturers of the autonomous vehicle will be seen as the liable agent as they are assembling and creating the decisive technological platform that controls the agency. Naturally, vehicle manufacturers do not want to accept this risk liability unless the market provides them a proper economic incentive to do so, which at present does not exist, but may in the future.


Technology will continue to progress and provides opportunities for mankind to reap the benefits. Improved modes of transportation will continue to be developed helping mankind to move with greater freedom, flexibility, efficiency, and safety. Electronic components and AI technology will play a significant role in these coming developments. As things move forward, mankind must exercise wisdom and ensure that as more control of the operation of the vehicle is ceded over to the vehicle itself that the correct ethical structures and programs are in place to protect human life, society, and property so that autonomous vehicles turn out to be a blessing for everyone.