Driverless cars could make our roads safer and reduce congestion. But the algorithms driving them will also have to make life-or-death decisions.
At some stage in the future, a fully autonomous car may determine who lives and who dies on our roads.
At the moment, there must be a human behind the wheel of these cars at all times, but government agencies are already working on a legal framework for when machines are totally in control.
The Germans — with an established car industry — have developed some simple rules: the machine must harm the fewest possible people and treat all life equally.
So what would you do?
You’re approaching a pedestrian crossing. The autonomous system is working but the brakes fail. A crash is unavoidable.
A car programmed to harm the fewest possible people would swerve into a wall, injuring you, rather than hit the three pedestrians.
Do you agree with this decision?
If you ask Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, German lawmakers are trying to reduce a tough moral argument about the value of human life into a simple formula.
He says scenarios like this one trigger difficult but necessary discussions about ethics, the value of human life and how we regulate technology.
While Australia is a few years away from seeing fully autonomous cars hit the roads, Dr Finkel says it’s time for a serious debate about whether a legal framework like the German one would work here.
These are the stages of autonomous cars:
- A little help with steering, acceleration.
- More help keeping you in your lane, cruise control.
- The machine starts to take over, but only in very controlled environments. We’re getting to this stage now.
- Fully autonomous but not in every circumstance.
- Completely autonomous with performance equal or better than human drivers.
In crude terms, the German rules specify that if a crash is unavoidable, a car would be programmed to hurt the fewest people possible.
The machine’s algorithms wouldn’t consider a person’s family ties, profession, fame, criminal record, gender, age or any other factors.
“It’s a sensible rule but is it the right rule?” Dr Finkel asks.
“Well, that’s for ethicists and politicians to debate.”
It’s a debate that gets more complex and delicate when real humans are involved.
You’re approaching road works. Your child is in the car. Pedestrians walk into the free lane without looking.
With no time to brake, a car programmed to harm the fewest possible people would hit the road works. That would injure you and your child, but save the pedestrians.
Would you buy a car that makes this decision?
Germany is home to some of the world’s biggest car companies and these rules are an attempt to give manufacturers certainty before they develop fully autonomous vehicles.
“They must be able to rely on absolutely clear ethical principles being observed in the development and design of technology,” the German guidelines say.
These are the German ethical rules:
- Human safety must come first
- All humans are considered equal
- The fewest people possible must be harmed
- Companies are liable
- Companies must be transparent
Whether we agree with these rules or not, they raise a question about what role government should play in regulating an industry and technology that is still developing.
The Federal Government has been accused of lagging on driverless cars, but it’s set aside $30 million to improve machine learning and develop a new “artificial intelligence ethics framework”.
That will guide the “responsible development” of technology and could eventually serve a similar function to the German rules.
The National Transport Commission (NTC), which advises federal and state governments on this issue, is now working on new laws for driverless cars. It’s already developed rules for trials across Australia.
Current driverless car trials in Australia:
- The NSW Government and Transurban are testing stage-two autonomous cars from seven different companies until August
- Driverless shuttlebuses are being trialled in Perth, Sydney and Ipswich
- The ACT Government is supporting a two-year trial involving 40 drivers
- The Victorian and South Australian governments allow trials on public roads. VicRoads has partnered with BMW, Mercedes, Tesla and Volvo
Some car manufacturers think it’s too early to develop these laws, given we’re a long way away from stage-five autonomous cars and we don’t know what the technology will look like in a decade.
But others, like the Transport Workers Union, want the Government to act now to ensure difficult decisions are not influenced by commercial interests.
“Leaving these decisions to technology and its programmers is unacceptable,” the union told a Senate hearing.
That would leave the Government to regulate tough decisions like these.
You’re driving down a narrow suburban street when a child suddenly runs into the road. There’s no time to brake.
Your car could swerve to avoid the child, but on either side it would hit an obstruction, injuring you. Alternatively, it could hit the child but save you. The German ethical guidelines are unclear.
Would you save yourself?
It’s an uncomfortable reality, but a car programmed to harm the fewest possible people might be compelled, in some circumstances, to sacrifice passengers to save others.
This presents a challenge for companies trying to sell those cars.
Mercedes Benz boss Christoph von Hugo was widely misquoted in 2016 as saying his cars would prioritise passengers over pedestrians.
The company went on the front foot, saying it was simply illegal for a machine to weigh up the value of life and this could only be solved through a lengthy legal and ethical debate.
Hussein Dia, a civil engineer who researches driverless cars for Swinburne University, says this proves why some form of the German rules is necessary.
“We need to have that discussion quickly or it’s going to be dictated to us,” he told the ABC.
The German rules redefine our understanding of who is liable for accidents and highlight a change that’s likely coming to Australia.
When humans make split-second decisions behind the wheel of a car, those decisions have consequences. If we’re negligent we may face an insurance claim and, in serious cases, criminal prosecution.
So when an accident does occur, will it be the passenger or the manufacturer who is held responsible?
“Today, a lot of our liability regimes are premised on liability sitting with the driver, but in a world where the vehicle is completely in control, it doesn’t make sense to attach liability to the passengers,” Victoria’s Urban Infrastructure Minister, Paul Fletcher, says.
The Federal Opposition takes a similar approach, saying we need to have these discussions now before fully autonomous cars become available.
In March, Elaine Herzberg was killed while pushing her bike across the road. Her death was tipped as a legal test case, but the company settled with the family for an undisclosed fee.
As Dr Finkel points out, Australian courts may judge car companies more harshly than humans.
“The court understands that if you’ve only been given one second to make a decision, you might make a decision that another reasonable person might not have made,” Dr Finkel says.
“We understand for human beings that it’s complex. We allow a lot of different decisions to be made.
“Will we be as generous to a computerised algorithm that can run at much faster speeds than we can? I don’t know.”
These questions are even more problematic when the rules don’t give a clear answer on what a car should do.
When it comes to a court, how would a judge determine guilt?
You’re driving through an intersection when three pedestrians cross illegally in front of you.
A car programmed to harm the fewest possible people would save the jaywalkers. With traffic in the other lane, it would have to swerve onto the footpath and injure you and a bystander.
Do you agree with this decision?
Many car manufacturers are coy when asked when fully autonomous cars will be on our roads.
In an incredibly competitive market, some are reluctant to put a date on a roll-out or give away well-guarded company plans.
But the consensus is, we’re still some way away.
The majority of 300 industry figures informally polled by Bloomberg New Energy Finance say we won’t see stage-five cars until at least 2030, but stage-four vehicles could roll out within the next five years.
But both sides of federal politics know they need to ensure regulation keeps pace with technological developments.
The argument is really whether they’re acting fast enough.