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Distressing: Possible ethical conundrums

Last updated: May 3, 2016

By , Insure.com

About to crash car

A train is hurtling toward five people who are tied to the track. You can throw a switch to divert the train onto another track, but it will hit a worker who happens to be standing on the other track. Do you do nothing and let the five people die or throw the switch and send another man to his death?

For autonomous cars, these philosophical games may be more grounded in reality. For instance: When moving unavoidably toward a collision with another car, should an autonomous car protect its passengers by steering onto a sidewalk and potentially striking pedestrians?

Norman says that while these scenarios have received a lot of scrutiny in the discussion of autonomous cars, it likely won't be hard to develop sensible protocols.

"These are Philosophy 101 problems, and they have long been addressed in the training of commercial drivers," he says. "The solution will be legal guidelines. I suspect the proper solution is to bypass the complex ethical game-playing, involving comparisons among situations where the relevant information often cannot be known at the time the decision must be made."

Ultimately, though, only time will tell how adept computers can be at making complex decisions in moments of driving peril.

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