No surprise, reports this week that a Mercedes-Benz executive had declared the company’s future autonomous cars would prioritise the lives of occupants over those of bystanders, quickly elicited cries of “a-ha, I knew it!” from all corners of the internet.
It started with a report in America’s Car & Driver, which quoted – and nothing is as sure as a direct quote – Mercedes-Benz driver assistance systems manager Christoph von Hugo.
“If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car,” Hugo told the website. “If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.”
Von Hugo’s quote came in response to a question about the infamous ‘trolley problem’, which asks how an autonomous vehicle should behave in a scenario where circumstances require that the vehicle take action either to save the life of bystanders by hitting another object – potentially killing its occupants – or saving its occupants by driving through the soft bystanders instead of into a pole, or tree, or barricade or oncoming vehicle.
But, according to Mercedes-Benz parent Daimler, in an email to Jalopnik.com, some of von Hugo’s words were omitted in the Car & Driver interview.
“For Daimler it is clear that neither programmers nor automated systems are entitled to weigh the value of human lives,” the company’s official statement reads.
It is generally understood that in most scenarios, connected autonomous vehicles, or CAVs, will be so aware of their surroundings and the road ahead that steps will be taken to avoid such a scenario well in advance.
Daimler continues: “Our development work focuses on completely avoiding dilemma situation by, for example, implementing a risk-avoiding operating strategy in our vehicles.”
“There is no instance in which we’ve made a decision in favor of vehicle occupants. We continue to adhere to the principle of providing the highest possible level of safety for all road users.
“To make a decision in favor of one person and thus against another is not legally permissible in Germany. There are similar laws in other countries as well.
“To clarify these issues of law and ethics in the long term will require broad international discourse. This is the only way to build a comprehensive consensus and promote acceptance for the results.
“As manufacturers we will implement both the respective legal framework and what is deemed to be socially acceptable.”
Nonetheless, it is a popular question that has plagued car makers – important enough to warrant multiple studies, including an in-depth review by Science magazine. (Link opens in new tab).
As Science puts it: “When it becomes possible to program decision-making based on moral principles into machines, will self-interest or the public good predominate?”
For the most part, just about all car makers have avoided answering the question. After all, if a vehicle could choose to sacrifice its occupants to save bystanders… would many choose to buy or travel in such a vehicle?
One reader, commenting at Jalopnik.com, replied to the initial report as follows: “This is the correct answer to the problem. My property does not get to determine whether I live or die, not for orphans, not for priests, not for the president.”
As Science mag notes, and likely as no surprise to readers, many buyers would prefer that others buy vehicles that will protect those around them – while they themselves would prefer to ride in a vehicle that will prioritise its occupants.
A clear and acceptable answer will need to come at some point. Adoption of autonomous driving technology is unlikely to occur at any decent rate if potential passengers are led to believe they might be sacrificed, while any confirmation that a vehicle could prioritise its occupants would demonise the manufacturer in question.
Preservation of self and family, or selfless regard for bystanders: which way do you lean? Tell us in the comments below.
Listen to the CarAdvice team discuss this topic below, and catch more like this at caradvice.com/podcast.