Skip to main content

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

volvo driverless car decision making
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…
Watch folks react to their first ride in GM Cruise’s driverless car
Two people taking their first ride in an autonomous car.

General Motors autonomous car unit, Cruise, has started to offer driverless rides to residents of San Francisco as it moves toward the launch of a full-fledged robo-taxi service.

Following a test run of the service last week, Cruise has released a video (below) showing the reaction of the very first passengers as they rode through the streets of the Californian city in a vehicle that had nobody behind the wheel.

Read more
Aptiv’s machine learning-powered radar sees even what you don’t
lyft and aptivs self driving car program has come a long way but not far enough aptiv screen press

Aptiv traveled to CES 2022 to showcase the improvements it has made to its suite of advanced driver assistance systems. It notably leveraged the power of machine learning technology to help its self-driving prototypes detect and classify objects, even those that are out of sight.

Think of a self-driving car as a human being; radars are the eyes and machine learning technology is the brain. Fitting radars to a car's body allows it to scope out the environment it operates in. It can detect that there's a car in front of it, that there's a bike coming the other way, and that there's a traffic light it needs to stop for. These are fairly straightforward tasks that most self-driving prototypes already perform.

Read more
Waymo’s self-driving cars can’t get enough of one dead-end street

Waymo has been testing its self-driving cars in San Francisco for the last decade. But an apparent change to the vehicles’ routing has caused many of them to make a beeline for a dead-end street in a quiet part of the city, causing residents there to wonder what on earth is going on.

At CBS news crew recently visited the site -- 15th Avenue north of Lake Street in Richmond -- to see if it could work out why so many of Waymo’s autonomous cars are showing up, turning around, and then driving right out again.

Read more