Skip to main content

Volvo’s driverless cars won’t make choices that endanger humans

volvo driverless car decision making
Image used with permission by copyright holder
Two guys walk into a bar full of dangerous-looking characters. They have a lot of trouble deciding where to sit. A third guy — stops at the door. That is essentially the answer a Volvo safety engineer gave when asked about the ethical implications of driverless car decisions, according to a report in International Business Times.

The engineer’s point was that driverless cars won’t have to make those decisions because they will foresee problems and either avoid them or just shut down.

In addressing the issue, Volvo senior technical leader of crash avoidance Trent Victor said, “It will be programmed to avoid getting into risky situations, to proactively stay within a zone where conflicts are resolvable, for example by changing lanes or slowing down.” If avoidance is impossible, if a situation presents itself where there is no safe choice to escape being harmed or doing harm, the cars would default to slowing down in a straight line.

The type of ethical question often posed is, when a vehicle is traveling too fast to stop, which choice would it make between hitting one person or swerving and going into a crowd? This is a variation of the classic Trolley Problem, an ethical thought experiment. In this problem, a runaway trolley is heading down a track heading toward five people tied up on the track. You control the track and with the flip of a switch can redirect the trolley to another spur. However, when you look there’s one person on that track. Flip the switch, that person dies. Do nothing, and five people die. Which do you choose?

Often when the Trolley Problem is presented most people would flip the switch. Often the question is asked again with a sentimental bias. For example, what if the one person was a healthy baby and the five were critically ill senior citizens?

According to Victor, all of the companies working on driverless cars — he specifically mentioned Volvo, BMW, Google, and Ford — are working with this same solution orientation. In the case of the Trolley Problem, however, regardless of who, what, or how many were on the track ahead, the best that could happen would be that the trolley could somehow slow down on its original track.

And the key to avoidance, Victor said, is looking ahead. It’s not enough to just be aware of the vehicle directly ahead, but vehicles in all directions and much farther ahead. With knowledge of a problem far up the road, autonomous cars would have more time to avoid it. And in order to look farther ahead, car-to-car communication is the most likely mechanism, unless the roadways were all wired and could connect to vehicles.

Editors' Recommendations

Bruce Brown
Digital Trends Contributing Editor Bruce Brown is a member of the Smart Homes and Commerce teams. Bruce uses smart devices…
Apple’s rumored car could cost the same as a Tesla Model S
Apple Car rendering from Vanarama.

Rumors have been swirling around for years regarding Apple’s plans for an electric, self-driving car.

The latest report, which arrived on Tuesday via a usually reliable source, suggests Apple has scaled back its plan for an autonomous car, with some elements yet to be agreed upon.

Read more
Ford and VW close down Argo AI autonomous car unit
An Argo AI autonomous car on the road.

Autonomous-car specialist Argo AI is closing down after Ford and Volkswagen, Argo's main backers, ended support for the Pittsburgh-based company.

First reported by TechCrunch and later confirmed by the two auto giants, some of the 2,000 workers at Argo will transfer to Ford and Volkswagen, while others without an offer will receive a severance package. Argo’s technology is also set to end up in the possession of the two companies, though at this stage it’s not clear how it might be shared.

Read more
Ex-Apple employee pleads guilty to nabbing Apple Car secrets
The Apple logo is displayed at the Apple Store June 17, 2015 on Fifth Avenue in New York City

A former Apple employee on Monday pled guilty to the theft of trade secrets from the tech firm.

The material stolen by Xiaolang Zhang was linked to Apple’s work on its first-ever automobile, a project that’s been in and out of the headlines for years though never officially confirmed by the company.

Read more