It’s an interesting dilemma, and one we may have to face should we ride in or drive autonomous cars: should such a car avoid a surefire collision with a group of pedestrians by swerving another way and potentially killing the occupants, or should the car hit the pedestrians and risk their lives, while saving the people who are inside of it?
An in-depth study published Thursday in the journal Science looked at the moral and ethical implications of a similar situation to the one above, and surveyed about 2,000 people to see what they think about autonomous cars that may operate that way. Most of the respondents said that they would prefer that their self-driving cars be “utilitarian,” meaning they should seek to save the most lives. In the above example, that would mean saving the pedestrians and potentially sacrificing the passengers’ lives. What was interesting, though, was how most respondents said they wouldn’t want to buy such a vehicle.
The disconnect was obvious in then raw numbers – 76 percent said they’d rather have an autonomous car do the ethical thing and save ten pedestrians versus one passenger, while 81 percent said they would rather drive a vehicle that protected themselves and their loved ones no matter what.
“We were surprised that so many people expressed a strong moral preference for cars that would kill them, as passengers, for the greater good,” said study co-author Jean-Francois Bonnefon of the Toulouse School of Economics in France. “(We were) even more surprised that so many people would renounce buying a driverless car if there was a regulation in place that would force them to buy the self-sacrificing cars that they morally approved of! People think that utilitarian cars are morally right, but they prefer to buy cars that protect them at all costs.”
Talking about the business side of things, the researchers opined that self-protective vehicles would indeed sell better than utilitarian vehicles, given the so-called “social dilemma” we face based on the survey results.
“Though the public might overwhelmingly recognize the utilitarian model as the more morally appropriate to have on the roads, individual consumers will be — according to our data — significantly more drawn toward the self-protective ones,” said University of California Irvine professor of psychology and study co-author Azim Shariff. “As a result, without new regulation or changes in social norms, manufacturers will likely be more successful at selling the self-protective version.”