Mercedes-Benz announced its self-driving cars will put driver safety first – even if that means killing a pedestrian.
Moral questions like these have plagued the automotive industry since autonomous vehicles became viable driving options. However, this is one of the first times a company has so blatantly drawn its lines.
For Christoph von Hugo, the man in charge of driver assistance systems for Mercedes, the answer seems simple.
“You could sacrifice the car. You could, but then the people you’ve saved initially, you don’t know what happens to them after that in situations that are often very complex, so you save the ones you know you can save,” he argued.
This problem doesn’t stem only from AI-operated cars. The Trolley Car problem has been toyed with for decades. A runaway car hurtles toward five workers. Do you pull the rail switch to change tracks, where only one guy works? Or do you keep going toward the five. In more modern terms, the trouble is this: an autonomous car sees a group of kids break out into the road. It has no time to stop. If it swerves, it will send you and the car head-on into oncoming traffic, and would instantly kill you.
That haunting premise didn’t scare away Hugo and Mercedes execs, however.
“If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car,” Hugo said in an interview at the Paris auto show. “If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.”
In early September, Germany published three foundations for self-driving cars. It ultimately banned AI systems from making decisions to harm one group of people over another:
” 1) It is clear that property damage takes always precedence of personal injury.”
2) There must be no classification of people, for example on size, age and the like.”
3) If something happens, the manufacturer is liable.”
The third rule seems to suggest blame falls on the shoulders of the auto makers themselves rather than assuming the human driver would take control back over the vehicle. No word yet as to whether Mercedes’s autonomous cars would actually uphold Germany’s standards. However, Hugo remains confident that a majority of the public could be overthinking things.
“We believe this ethical question won’t be as relevant as people believe today. It will occur much less often,” Hugo said. “There are situations that today’s driver can’t handle, that—from the physical standpoint—we can’t prevent today and automated vehicles can’t prevent, either. [The self-driving car] will just be far better than the average [human] driver.”
Granted, the Mercedes cars being discussed here aren’t the Level 2 cars like Tesla’s Autopilot. Mercedes has already planned for Level 4 and 5 cars, which would make decisions with no human interaction ever needed.
The research done surrounding popular opinions on these tough situations doesn’t help much. A study done by Science magazine surveyed 1928 people about their thoughts. A majority felt it would be better for self-driving cars to sacrifice the driver instead of the pedestrians. However, the majority also said they wouldn’t buy an AI car if it put pedestrian safety above their own. The study seemed to result in a Catch-22.