About a week ago, there was a headline in the biggest European business newspaper, the Financial Times, which stated that Uber had signed an agreement with Volvo to buy a whopping 24,000 SUVs of theirs.
The plan, if further terms can be agreed upon, is to have them delivered by 2020 and then turn them into a fleet of self-driving taxis to serve Americans.
Taking into account that the technology by then will be flawless, there will be a serious reduction to the more than 35,000 deaths on U.S. highways each year. There should be easier commutes, enhanced mobility for seniors (and a lot of layoffs in the taxi sector but that’s another story).
However, it also means you’ll have to consider this hypothetical. Imagine that two self-driving cars are on a road, and a bus comes from the other side. One of the tires on the bus bursts and it is starting to swirl. Both sides of the road are a river and a wall, so that’s no option, leaving the car without any winnable possibilities.
Does the car then:
A. Swerve you into the wall or the river, as it believes that killing one person only is better than killing the whole lot on the bus (we assume that the car knows there are more people in the bus than in your car)?
B. Try to perform an evasive maneuver to save you but send the bus into the river and thus killing more people?
C. Hit the bus, possibly killing you as well as the people on the bus?
The question really is, will driverless cars be programmed to save as many lives as possible, or will they be programmed to save just yours, the owner of the car?
Mr Van Lindberg, a lawyer at the Dykema law firm in San Antonio, is specialized in the quite new field of ‘autonomous vehicle issues’, and explains that he has thought about the question already: “There will be crashes.”
“Unusual things will happen. Trees will fall. Animals, kids will dart out. Even as self-driving cars save thousands of lives, anyone who gets the short end of that stick is going to be pretty unhappy about it.”
Even Mr Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Google’s self-driving car initiative, admitted that the cars will be specifically designed to avoid accidents, but that “If it happens where there is a situation where a car couldn’t escape, it’ll go for the smaller thing.”