In 2016 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched a global online survey to test whether there are cultural differences in response to the trolley problem, applied to robot cars.
Packaged as The Moral Machine, it asked players to instruct robot cars to “choose the lesser of two evils, such as killing two passengers or five pedestrians”.
This type of exercise is a pernicious con orchestrated for the benefit of the car manufacturers. Here is why.
The trolley problem hardly ever comes up in real life
If one looks at real life situations, where car drivers kill or injure pedestrians or cyclists, it is extremely rare that the driver was “choosing the lesser evil”, i.e. was trying to save another life. The trolley problem is non-problem, a masturbation for so-called theoretical ethics professors.
The trolley problem is an attempt to frame the ethical issues involved with robot cars for the benefit of the machines
By focusing on the trolley problem, i.e.a non-problem, the industry is perversely trying to shape public opinion towards its objectives.
It promotes the fallacy that robot cars will kill only to save lives
Robot cars are promoted as being much safer than human operators, capable of erasing the million+ yearly butchery on our roads. It is trying to sell the idea that robot cars will kill only when forced into an impossible dilemma. The truth is that robot cars have and will continue to kill for very different reasons, namely
- the inadequacy of the software to deal with anything more sophisticated than the cultural desert of a North American suburb.
- the vulnerability of robot cars to hacking attacks
- the willing interference by operators of safety systems to improve performance, as when evil Uber switched off one of the braking systems in a car that killed a pedestrian.
It does not focus on the real issue: why would the robot car be in such a position to be faced with the trolley problem
The key moral Vision Zero question is “what measures do we need to take to ensure that robot cars do not kill innocent citizens?” In other words we need to treat robot cars as fallible machines, and we need to create environments where they are very unlikely to kill or seriously injure. this means adopting similar measures that Vision Zero mandates for human-driven machines:
- minimise their presence in busy urban areas
- limit their speed, to reduce the impact of crashes (much easier to enforce with robot cars)
- devote road space to bicycle-only travel
You can understand how car manufacturers can be against the Vision Zero agenda, which necessarily limits the freedom to drive as and where one pleases.
It is a pre-emptive fight to disable citizens from being able to reduce the mobility of robot cars
Car manufacturers are terrified by the idea that if safety guidelines are too strict, and robot cars are regulated in such a way to prevent all avoidable crashes, the cars would not be able to move because anyone can step off the pavement and block the progress of a robot car. A Vision Zero robot car would not be able to move. The car manufacturers are always lobbying to prevent any interference with the privileged position of drivers and are already trying to make sure that such a scenario will not be contemplated by regulators.
It is a victim blaming exercise
By framing the issue as a trolley problem, they are shifting the blame from the cars to the pedestrians. Note how the MIT survey tries to show the cultural differences to whether a robot car should kill someone crossing the street not at a designated crossing site, (Global preferences for who to save in self-driving car crashes revealed). It perpetuates the immoral proposition, so dear to the British (un)Justice System, that drivers are allowed to act as vigilantes, absolved of blame if they kill a pedestrian who has broken the rules, rules of course that have been designed prioritising the convenience of drivers over the safety of ordinary citizens.
We are not against the idea of robot cars
A technology that has the potential of reducing the consequences of human error is to be welcomed. However, we have to be very careful that the car industry is hi-jacking what can be a life-saving technology, with the goal of entrenching the privileges of its customers. The safest car is a car off the road. The reduction of the number and the speed of vehicles on our roads is a much more effective way to eliminate avoidable road deaths. That should the primary goal of urban planners. Opposed to this vision of cities designed for the benefit of ordinary citizens, robot cars are being sold as the solution of future mobility: that is snake oil and the trolley problem is a pernicious way to frame the public discourse for the benefit of car manufacturers.
The proper response to people pushing the trolley problem is “Wank off”.
Finally, here is an anecdote that shows the total lack of ethics of many involved in pushing robot cars: