The Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

University Observer: The fields of Philosophy and Software Engineering are not known for being interlinked. Sean Mooney investigates why this is changing with the advent of self-driving cars.

Photograph: iStockphoto

Photograph: iStockphoto


The vehicle manufacturer Volvo is aiming to bring an end to traffic fatalities by the year 2020, and the optimism in this statement is typical of the industry. With 1.2 million people across the world dying annually on the roads, it is a bold ambition, but such is the promise of self-driving cars.

The technology will put an end to fatigued, angry, and careless drivers. Computers have surpassed us in calculation and chess; and driving will be no different.

In a world where a substantial portion of the cars on the road are self-driving, how we program these vehicles will be of huge importance. The code beneath the hood will determine the car’s actions. Such decisions cannot be left up to software engineers alone.

Desirable values should be discussed by society as a whole as the technology will greatly impact our lives. All new technology comes with ethical concerns around privacy and the impact on employment, but the stakes are higher for autonomous vehicles: features in the software will cost lives on the roads.

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