February 28, 2024

A self-driving car killed a pedestrian. What now?

Is collateral damage inevitable on the road to a driverless world?

A self-driving Uber vehicle has hit and killed a pedestrian in United States, raising concerns about the regulation of new autonomous vehicle (AV) technology.

Elaine Hertzberg was struck down late on Sunday night in Tempe, Arizona, after accidently stepping in front of an AV vehicle — an Audi SUV — travelling at approximately 60 kph.

The vehicle’s front sensor failed to detect the woman, while a safety driver present in the car was not watching the road.

Uber has announced an immediate halt on its AV trials across North America after the incident, and police are investigating. Legislation currently being discussed in Washington will look to introduce federal safety standards for the use of AV technology.

Some analysts suggest that regulations of self-driving vehicles need to be stronger. “Moving too quickly could put lives at risk and set back a technology that could ultimately help reduce the number of people killed and injured on the roads each year”, wrote Will Knight of the MIT Technology Review.

Others suggested that fatalities are inevitable — albeit far less likely — with self-driving vehicles. The Economist argued that, while self-driving vehicles will reduce the number of fatalities, “the sad truth is that there are bound to be fatal accidents on the road to a driverless world”.

These robot vehicles have a link to bioethics, especially to the well-known utilitarian trolley problem. After all, someone has to program them to make “decisions” about what to do when faced with conflicting choices.

Last year the German Federal cabinet adopted 20 recommendations by the Ethics Commission on Automated Driving, as a basis for the local car industry to advance its driverless technology. But it noted that “at the level of what is technologically possible today […] it will not be possible to prevent accidents completely. This makes it essential that decisions be taken when programming the software of conditionally and highly automated driving systems.”

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autonomous vehicles
robot ethics