Monday, October 24, 2016

Editorial: The Trolley Problem

Image courtesy of onedio
For those of you who are unfamiliar with what the "Trolley Problem" is, it's actually quite simple. It's a simple thought experiment in ethics that asks you to imagine a trolley headed towards a track with five people tied to it. By pulling a lever, you can divert the trolley to a different track with one person tied to it. So the question here is whether or not you do nothing and let five people die, or do something and let one person die. But what does any of this have to do with cars? With the advent of autonomous cars hitting our roads within the next few years, people have begun to ask a similar question, but about autonomous cars: should the car be programmed to avoid hitting pedestrians, but possibly endangering the occupants, or to hit the pedestrians and save the occupants inside the car?

Image courtesy of Mercedes-Benz
It's an interesting question that doesn't seem to have a truly correct answer to...unless you're Mercedes-Benz apparently. During the most recent Paris Motor Show, Car and Driver spoke with Mercedes-Benz's Manager of Driver Assistance Systems, Cristoph von Hugo. During their interview, Car and Driver brought up the "Trolley Problem" with von Hugo, knowing full well that this is a question that manufacturers do not like to address. Oddly, von Hugo did address the question, stating that Mercedes-Benz's level four and five autonomous vehicles would prioritize saving the occupants of the vehicle.

While not implicitly stated, von Hugo's answer does imply that Mercedes-Benz's autonomous vehicles will run over a group of pedestrians if it means saving the occupants inside the car, or as Jalopnik's Raphael Orlove so eloquently puts it: "My dude. Holy shit. You know what you’re saying there, right? You’re saying that a Mercedes S-Class or whatever, driving down the road, will happily if not gleefully run over a child if it guaranteed saving the caviar-guzzling millionaire inside. Not just a child. An orphan. A group of orphans. A group of sick, orphans with leprosy."

Again, this goes back to the idea that there really is no correct answer to the "Trolley Problem." For a car manufacturer, any answer given will shovel bad PR its way. Save the pedestrians? Why is your company's car killing its customers to save random people? Save the occupants? How could you let your autonomous vehicle become a rolling death machine? In the end, someone is going to be upset and someone is going to get sued.

So, readers, I pose the question to you: if you were in charge of programming the brain of a new autonomous vehicle, how would you try and solve "Trolley Problem?"

Update:
So it would seem that as I was writing this article, Mercedes-Benz has clarified that some of von Hugo's comments in the Car and Driver interview were left out. Mercedes' official stance on the problem is "...neither programmers nor automated systems are entitled to weigh the value of human lives." In short, Mercedes-Benz is now also side-stepping the question along with other auto manufacturers.