Morality and Autonomous Vehicles

The classic “trolley problem” in ethics is now becoming the “autonomous vehicle problem.” The thought experiment asks: A trolley is hurtling towards five helpless people on a track. Do you pull a lever to divert the trolley onto another track, hitting only one person—or do nothing? The updated question asks whether a driverless car should be programmed to hit three pedestrians in a crosswalk—or swerve into a wall and hurt its passenger instead. According to a recent series of surveys, people have mixed views on the question. 76% of respondents believed it was more moral for a driverless vehicle to sacrifice one passenger than hit ten pedestrians. However, 81% of respondents would rather their own car protect them at all costs. As one of the authors of the study summarized the findings, “People think that utilitarian cars are morally right, but they prefer to buy cars that protect them at all costs.”

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