back to article Helping autonomous vehicles and humans share the road

A common fantasy for transportation enthusiasts and technology optimists is for self-driving cars and trucks to form the basis of a safe, streamlined, almost choreographed dance. In this dream, every vehicle – and cyclist and pedestrian – proceeds unimpeded on any route, as the rest of the traffic skillfully avoids collisions …

  1. John Robson Silver badge


    "We stop midblock and wave a pedestrian across, even though there’s no crosswalk. We cross the double yellow line to leave cyclists enough room on the shoulder."

    The first is only considered in the US where motorists managed to pass a ridiculous law banning people from roads, the latter isn't hard to code for, but it is rare to see humans manage it...

    1. Red Bren

      Re: Really.

      "We cross the double yellow line to leave cyclists enough room on the shoulder." may not be hard to code for but it isn't the right answer. The correct answer is to wait for a break in the double yellow (or solid white) line and overtake the cyclist when it is safe to do so.

      West Midlands Police are doing sterling work to highlight this -

      1. John Robson Silver badge

        Re: Really.

        My reading was double yellow and therefore US, and I don't know what the regulations are there.

        In the UK you can break the double white line to overtake certain classes of vehicle (which includes cyclists) but ONLY if they are doing less than 10mph.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Really.

          Ah now is that 10mph by the car speedo, or the real 10mph?

          1. John Robson Silver badge

            Re: Really.

            It's what's written - so real 10mph. It's also incumbent on the overtaking party to do so in a safe manner (i.e. check for oncoming traffic, leave as much room as you would leave for a car, etc...).

            It is however accepted that at <10mph an overtake can be accomplished where it would be unsafe to overtake something travelling at 20mph - and that is fine.

  2. S4qFBxkFFg

    "To handle these relative preferences, we could equip people with beacons on their cellphones to signal nearby cats that they are a certain type of person (child, elderly, pedestrian, cyclist). Then programmers could instruct their autonomous systems to make decisions based on priorities from surveys or experiments like the Moral Machine."

    brb, buying a backpack and 100 "My First Cellphone!"s.

  3. Aqua Marina

    Price hikes on the way.

    "Volvo has already noticed that some human drivers behave like bullies around autonomous cars."

    If this is researched and documented then it will result in premiums being sky-high for owners of non-autonamous drivers all the more quickly. "You're insurance premium is going up this year sir, because we think you'll be acting like a dick!"

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Price hikes on the way.

      >"You're insurance premium is going up this year sir, because we think you'll be acting like a dick!"

      Exactly. Here's the thing: Driver speed isn't the chief cause of accidents, but it is the driver behaviour that is easiest to police. So we have the situation where driver safety campaigns solely on speed, and not on other bits of driver behaviour - such as correct lane discipline and use of indicators - where safety would benefit from being educated. ('t-the-only-factor-in-the-road-toll/6831300)

      A black box could help with such things. "You're insurance is going up because you are... "

      - driving blithely down the middle lane of the motorway when you are not actively overtaking another vehicle

      - not turning your lights on when the whole motorway is a grey fog of road spray. And you're driving a grey car.

      - only using your indicators when you reach a roundabout instead of beforehand. FFS, they are called 'indicators' and not 'describers'!

      - going all the way down a hill with your brakes on, instead of choosing an appropriate gear.

      - etc

      1. Mark 110 Silver badge

        Re: Price hikes on the way.

        Oh deity I hate those middle lane drivers. As for the guys/girls that think indicating halfway through their manouvre (if at all) . . . I just work on the basis that I need to expect the unexpected.

        To add to the list:

        - the people that think the best time to change lanes to overtake a lorry is when they are 3 inches from its back bumper just when I am coming level with them

        - the people that think the best time to come out of the fast lane to exit the motorway is when they are 3 inches from the exit

        - the people working on their playlist/messaging/phone call/laptop instead oof looking at the road

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Price hikes on the way.

          "- the people that think the best time to come out of the fast lane to exit the motorway is when they are 3 inches from the exit"

          Can I add the people that think they shouldn't take the exit after they've already taken it but still can't work out that the way to rejoin is to continue on the slip road, navigate round the junction and find the "on" slip road.

      2. Red Bren
        Thumb Up

        Re: Price hikes on the way @Dave 126

        "Driver speed isn't the chief cause of accidents"

        Maybe not, but it is a major contributing factor. Approach an incident at a lower speed and you have more time to react and possibly avoid it becoming an accident altogether. Approach at a higher speed and the forces involved can turn a minor collision into a serious or fatal one.

        Have an upvote for the rest of your post - especially the bit about indicators not describers!

        1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

          Re: Price hikes on the way @Dave 126

          "Approach an incident at a lower speed and you have more time to react and possibly avoid it becoming an accident altogether. Approach at a higher speed and the forces involved can turn a minor collision into a serious or fatal one."

          So would you rather be struck by a car travelling at low speed because the driver was concentrating on his speedometer or missed by one whose driver was concentrating on the road and let his speed drift up beyond an arbitrary number?

          The driver's concentration is not infinite and the things most deserving of it are outside the car. By observing those the driver can subjectively set an appropriate speed. Solving complex problems involving motion, speed, relative locations etc. has been more or less automatic since our ancestors were swinging about in trees. Natural selection saw to that.

        2. inmypjs Silver badge

          Re: Price hikes on the way @Dave 126

          "Driver speed isn't the chief cause of accidents"

          "Maybe not, but it is a major contributing factor."

          Driver speed is their most effective tool for controlling risk which is why we should be encouraging them to use that tool to control risk not to use it most of the time to obey numbers on sticks.

        3. Toltec

          Re: Price hikes on the way @ Red Bren

          Impact speed definitely contributes to the scale of injury, however it is failure to allow enough time and space to avoid the impact that contributes to it becoming an accident, not the speed of approach.

          A driver that does not allow enough space will do so at any speed so really the best you can expect of lowering speed is mitigation of the accidents they are going to cause rather than preventing them altogether. By the time you have lowered the speed to a level at which the gap they leave is too small for them to even hit the brakes more and more drivers will be being conditioned to drive this way.

          1. Mark 85 Silver badge

            @Toltec -- Re: Price hikes on the way @ Red Bren

            We can only control the space in front of us to a point. Other drivers see that space and will take it if they're of that mindset.

            I have a friend that has a rather large motorhome (caravan to you over the pond). He's well aware of the stopping distance required for the beast as well as it's handling characteristics. Coming up on a stop light (well-marked, etc.) he's slowing and a car changed lanes and pulled over right in front of him. Those in the car died while he and his wife were uninjured. There's been lawsuits ongoing for several years from this. That is the kind of problem currently facing AI and autonomous automobiles: the meatsacks.

            Figure out how to separate them from the autonomous and you've got a winner.

        4. Libertarian Voice

          Re: Price hikes on the way @Dave 126

          Not true. If you are driving slowly then you are more than likely imn that zombie mode where your brain is only half functioning. This results in your reaction times being much slower which subsequently increases your stopping distances. Driving at modern speed limits is the equivalent of underachieving for at least 85 percent of drivers.

        5. Graham Dawson

          Re: Price hikes on the way @Dave 126

          Not mere speed, but inappropriate speed for the conditions, something that fixed camera fines and even smart motorways aren't capable of determining.

        6. Kiwi Silver badge

          Re: Price hikes on the way @Dave 126

          Maybe not, but it is a major contributing factor.

          That's almost stupidly obvious though - if two cars are not moving, they're not going to hit each other.

          Like probably most people, I can think of a few places within 20 minutes drive of where I live that if you were to drive at 20kph (legal limit 100kph) you would almost certainly have a fatal crash. I could also take you to a number of places where you could drive at 300kph (very briefly) in perfect safety at the right times of day.

          The biggest issue is not driving to the conditions. I have a love of very fast bikes, and may - once or twice - have accidentally slightly exceeded the speed limit. I've more often traveled below the limit because conditions suggest that if I wish to live I ride slower. And a couple of times where if I wish to live I twist that grip for all it's worth and screw the speed limit.

          Road conditions, not laws, should govern safe driving decisions. The NZ fuddermint is set to increase our speed limits in some areas, which shows that the long campaigns of "drive at 100.0000000001kph and you're gonna die in a fiery crash" have been somewhat rubbish (at holidays in recent years they've had a 4k margin of error - with resulting increases in accidents!)


      3. PatientOne

        Re: Price hikes on the way.

        "A black box could help with such things."

        Only if it's connected to a dashboard camera so you can see what the driver was facing else you'll not have the context of the situation. Hard breaking could be due to someone cutting you up (unsignalled lane change) on the approach to traffic lights rather than you not paying attention to the lights changing, for example.

        At which point you can add a few more to the list:

        - not using your indicator to warn traffic of your intention

        - changing lanes when it isn't safe to do so (causing a road user to swerve or slow down as a result).

        - ignoring red lights at junctions and pedestrian crossings (can also add ignorning pedestrians on pelican crossings)

        - ignoring traffic priority as marked or as per the highway code

        - (or generally) ignoring road instructions (particularly temporary ones).

      4. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Price hikes on the way.

        "A black box could help with such things. "You're insurance is going up because you are... ""

        I suggest getting the catch up of BBCs watchdog from a couple of weeks back, where someone was accused of doing about 130mph in a car that maxed out at about 109mph, the one that said they wer e doing 60 in a 30 zone, except the road was so short their car couldn't reach that speed. Still it works the other way as well, someone was being rewarded for good driving while the black box was unplugged and sat on a table.*

        *Note, this is all from memory, but you get the point.

  4. BoldMan

    Wow and article from The Conversation that wasn't total waffle and bollocks! One for the diary then!

    There are so many things wrong with the idea of autonomous vehicles, from the economic one of how many jobs will this tech destroy to the rules problems brought up in the article. You cannot force pedestrians to follow the Highway Code as that would mean you'd need to have a "Pedestrian Test" to be allowed to leave the house which is utterly ridiculous. People will always behave unpredictably from a machine's point of view but other humans will be able to predict just because we are better at understanding random human behaviour, we can read imperceptible body language signals without even thinking.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      >There are so many things wrong with the idea of autonomous vehicles...

      No doubt. But there are tens of thousands of deaths each year which serve as granite monuments to the problems with our existing system.

      Your phrasing is interesting... you say the problem is the 'idea' of driverless cars, and not any possible implementation.

      > from the economic one of how many jobs will this tech destroy

      Some might say that is actually a problem with the idea of economics, or at least our current implementation of it! :)

      But you're right - just think of how many doctors and paramedics will lose their jobs if we stop killing and maiming each other on the roads. Oh, the humanity! /s

    2. phuzz Silver badge

      "You cannot force pedestrians to follow the Highway Code"

      Cyclists have to follow the highway code, or face fines, but there's no "Bicycle Test".

      (I'm pretty sure a copper could come up with something to charge you with if you're a pedestrian wandering all over the road anyway. Loitering perhaps.)

      1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

        'Cyclists have to follow the highway code, or face fines, but there's no "Bicycle Test".'

        I'm not sure about the face fines bit in practice. How else do you explain the woman I saw yesterday slowly wheeling her bike across three lanes of traffic against the lights?

        1. Red Bren

          "How else do you explain the woman I saw yesterday slowly wheeling her bike across three lanes of traffic against the lights?"

          If she's dismounted the bike, she's not a cyclist, she's a pedestrian. As I wasn't a witness to the event, I shall refrain from judging if what she was doing was wrong, or just inconvenient for you.

      2. PatientOne

        "Cyclists have to follow the highway code, or face fines, but there's no "Bicycle Test"."

        Yes there is (in the UK at least): The cycling proficiency test. It's just not compulsary.

    3. Jez Burns

      Autonomous vehicles would be an amazing thing, but like you said, we don't have autonomous pedestrians, cyclists or roads to suit them. Until everyone by mutual consent agrees to trash the concept of liability (which probably predates fire, and will likely never happen), autonomous vehicles will never come into mass usage in an uncontrolled environment. There will be accidents involving autonomous vehicles leading to death or injury - no doubt orders of magnitude fewer than those of regular vehicles, but at some point, a car's computer will make a 'trolley bus' decision. If a Mercedes built car causes a death, it could be shown logically by lawyers acting for the victim's family that the behaviour causing his or her death was predetermined by the manufacturer. For this reason, it wouldn't surprise me if, without huge legislative changes, the directors of Mercedes could be found criminally liable regardless of contracts between the vehicles operator and manufacturer. Blame is in some ways a compensation afforded to victims by society that helps salve their grief, and society's guilt.

      The only alternative is that legislation (agreed by all countries) forces operators of autonomous vehicles to accept legal responsibility for the actions of their cars' AI. If the idea of criminal responsibility was navigated successfully, insurance companies would bear the burden of compensation for injury or death, and as is the case at the moment, would be forced to contribute to a pool to cover payouts to victims of uninsured operators (though the system would have to be vastly improved).

      However, will we ever really be morally comfortable with abandoning the idea of blame, and accepting - emotionally, not logically - that the roads are a lottery; that any time, you or someone you care about could have their life snuffed out by a cold, unthinking machine? Could we completely substitute awards of money for feelings of vindication towards another human being in apportioning blame?

      Even if people are killed by faults in mechanical devices every day, these devices don't make decisions. The public might see deaths from AI as akin to a death squad of robots, randomly executing people on their doorstep every few days - at least that's how it could be framed by the media.

      Most readers here would probably accept the logic that statistically a vastly reduced overall road death rate would be a price worth paying for this kind of lottery. But picture a situation where a young pregnant single mother (a nurse) and her little girl are killed by an AI on their way to school, leaving her other three children orphaned. Can you imagine how the media would frame it? How public opinion could change overnight? I'm pretty convinced that without a completely controlled environment to operate in, autonomous vehicles would be dead in the water after a single incident like this, no matter how much effort went into dealing with the liability issues. People would stop buying them, companies would stop selling them.

      How much would it cost to create controlled environments for the exclusive use of automated vehicles (fenced roads with controlled junctions for crossings etc)? In urban areas we don't have the space to assign exclusivity to many roads without a huge uptake in automated vehicles (before which public opinion might turn against them in any case). For freight transport maybe, but then is it more cost effective to upgrade and improve autonomy in rail systems?

      The automotive industry should probably concentrate on automated enhanced safety systems long before thinking about self-driving cars.

      1. Shooter

        @ Jez Burns

        I strongly suspect that these issues of morality and/or liability will be addressed (not necessarily solved) by government fiat. Eventually the appropriate government agencies will mandate that autonomous vehicle decision-making algorithms must adhere to specific parameters laid out by the government. These parameters will be designed to minimize loss of life only - there is no feasible way for an AI to determine relative worth of the humans involved (doctor vs. criminal, young vs. old, etc.) at the time the decision will have to be taken. Exactly how to meet these parameters will be left up to the manufacturers. Whether or not this would include prioritizing the lives of the vehicle occupants would be addressed by those government parameters, and not left to the manufacturer to decide.

        Driverless vehicles already have GPS and multiple camera/sensor systems. I suspect that there will be a government mandate that all of that information will be transmitted to and stored at a designated data farm in real time (hey, we're already being spied on constantly, what's a little more tracking). In the case of an accident, that data will be used to determine exactly what happened, and who was at fault (if anyone). As long as the vehicle manufacturer can show that their algorithm meets the government requirements, they will not be held liable for the results of the collision. They would, of course, still be held liable for design/implementation flaws, be they hardware or software. As is the case even now, vehicle owners who do not maintain their cars properly will be liable to the extent that such negligence is a factor in the accident. This would no doubt also include any updates to the driving software, so I would expect acceptance of such updates to be mandatory.

        I don't say that this is necessarily the best approach to the problem, just what I see as likely to happen. It would address the issue of reducing the carnage on the roads; as well as minimize liability for manufacturers (thereby giving them incentives to be in the industry). Note that this does not force vehicle owners to accept liability for the AIs action (again, so long as the vehicle is maintained properly); if the vehicle is operating within regulatory guidelines. While there will always be headline-grabbing exceptions to the basic parameters, the public will eventually accept the greatly reduced death and injury rate on the roads as a matter of course. It may take a generation or two to reach widespread acceptance, but sooner or later driverless vehicles will become the norm.

  5. Dave 126 Silver badge

    It does seem that the articles is written, reasonably enough, about just dropping a few driverless cars onto road systems akin to those we have today. Here's the thing thing though: If driverless cars were widespread, there wouldn't be any schoolchildren walking along busy roads; the schoolchildren would be chauffeured to school instead.*

    If driverless cars can be made much safer than human drivers (tiredness, drunkenness, distraction) then these 'trolly problem' dilemmmas will be more niche cases. The choice won't between running over a young criminal and old doctor, but between keeping a transport system that kills tens of thousands a year and striving towards a system that could be much safer.

    *Just an example. And anyone concerned with a lack of physical exercise for the children can consider the lovely outdoor playspaces that residential streets could become if they weren't merely used to store parked cars as they are today. I was once in a city during a transport workers strike - busses blocked offthe roads, and the children were all out on bikes and skateboards, and playing hopscotch-type games and football.

    Obviously there would be transitional period with lots of challenges.

  6. Mark 110 Silver badge


    "a person might cut off an autonomous vehicle because he is confident the other car will avoid a collision itself"

    People do this to human drivers as well. You really have to have your wits about you the way some cocks drive.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Cocks

      Especially on roundabouts - I never expect people to give way as they should when they are on my left (I live in a country where we drive on the left of the road). However, I will pretend that I haven't seen the offender, braking only enough to avoiding hitting them. Hopefully what they perceive as a 'close shave' will shock them into driving properly in future.

      Obviously it isn't a real 'close shave' because I have seen them and compensated for their moment of idiocy. In any case, my vehicle, a flatbed Transit, is bigger and rougher than theirs (drivers of vehicles bigger than mine always seem to deal with roundabouts correctly, so I never have an issue with them).

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: Cocks

        When, a few years back, the big thing in the press was "road rage" incidents and lots of psychologists were being hauled up in front of TV cameras to discuss what caused this behaviour it occurred to me that what most of them were describing wasn't really any such thing. It was just ordinary, everyday bullying behaviour. But that the bullies had been allowed out into the street, almost totally anonymous and with a steel box round them. My guess was that in their offices and homes they would be no different if allowed to get away with it.

        I often drive round in a little Ford Ka that we got for our teenagers to use. It is quite astonishing how differently some people drive when they see a little car near them. They drive in ways that I almost never see in our usual, just average sized, vehicle. I get tailgated, carved up, overtaken on a bend, all sorts of stupid stuff.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Cocks

        Until the cock panics and slams on the anchors when they finally see you.

      3. Loud Speaker

        Re: Cocks

        Over the years, I have found that suitably dented, rusty, white vans tend to get plenty of space on the road.

        It still amazes me that people try to overtake full sized artics on roundabouts. They can't see anything in the mirrors while turning, and may need at least two lanes to come off. (And occasionally roll over).

        There is a very big roundabout quite near me like this. It has an exit from a major industrial artery which is followed immediately by a very sharp single lane exit into an industrial estate. Artics have to enter the roundabout in the outside lane, cross to the inner lane on the roundabout, and then drive almost pass the single lane exit to turn in. Cars and bikes try and pass them on the inside all the time - result: "squelch".

    2. Red Bren

      Re: Cocks

      The autonomous car may avoid the collision, but what then? That autonomous vehicle is out there! It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop... ever, except for a red light, or a "Stop" sign, or a pedestrian crossing, or a cat!

  7. TRT Silver badge

    I found that the Moral Maze...

    That MIT test thing... Well, I found I was coming up with stuff not in the description, like elderly woman will not be able to get out of the way if I beep my horn like a crazy, but the jogger might well be able to see and judge what my actions are and therefore stands a better chance of survival.

    1. Whitter

      Re: I found that the Moral Maze...

      They also seemingly haven't accounted for the order of scenarios which I suspect will influence outcomes. Perhaps they are watching that too but they make no mention of it.

  8. David Roberts Silver badge

    All or nothing yet again.

    The obvious first case for autonomous vehicles is on dual carriageways and motorways.

    Keeping a safe distance, maintaining a safe speed, collision avoidance; only a small subset of the challenges found in urban areas.

    Kick the can dowm the road for full autonomy in all locations until the infrastructure can be upgraded to physically seperate vehicles and pedestrians/cyclists. Even then the first and last few hundred yards are likely to be at least supervised by humans.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: All or nothing yet again.

      Motorways and dual carriageways are also areas that cause drivers to feel tired, or bored and distracted.

      There's a stretch of 50mph limit motorway that I travel on every week in a old Transit - I always make sure to have a coffee beforehand, because the noise and vibration is so constant and amniotic that on one occasion I found it barely possible to stay awake (and there wasn't any hardshoulder to use. I got off the motorway as soon as possible, but as soon as I parked up safely to have a snooze I felt fully awake).

      The effect of loud but constant noise making people fall asleep is well documented in the medical literature.

      1. TRT Silver badge

        Re: amniotic

        What kind of a van are you even driving?

        1. Dave 126 Silver badge

          Re: amniotic

          >Re: amniotic: What kind of a van are you even driving?

          Ah, sorry, I meant amniotic-like, hehe. I was reaching for a shorthand for a warm, throbbing, muffled sound environment. :)

          At the time it was an old, under-powered Luton Transit, lots of noise and vibration in the cab. I haven't come that close to that unnerving experience of having to concentrate on keeping my eyes open since, but it concerned me enough to be wary of the phenomenon.

          The Transit I drive now has electric windows - it might seem a small thing, but it allows me to safely open the near-side window, which brings cool air around my head more efficiently than opening the driver-side window (fluid dynamics, who'da though they'd be complex, eh?). Also, it's a quieter vehicle. In addition, the length of the 50 mph restriction are much shorter than they were a few years ago (but still there - what are they doing??)

          Now, the other vans I drove - brand new 3 litre turbo Vitaras/Traffics, were like rocket ships when unladed. Possibly dangerous too, but they had a handy 'Eco' button that made the acceleration less insane, as well as a driver-adjustable speed-limiter. And air-conditioning.

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Re: amniotic

            I was setting you up to reply "a box van" or something clever and amusing.

        2. Pompous Git Silver badge

          Re: amniotic

          What kind of a van are you even driving?
          One with plenty of womb one presumes.

    2. inmypjs Silver badge

      Re: All or nothing yet again.

      "The obvious first case for autonomous vehicles is on dual carriageways and motorways."

      But it is much harder to justify the cost of all the automation if it is only used on some roads and the car still needs a driver to get to and from those roads.

      I can't see it happening except maybe for some lorries where sleeping or resting on the motorway won't count towards the driver's working hours.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Steinbach's Guideline for Systems Programmers

    "Never test for an error condition you don't know how to handle."

  10. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

    Ancient cant by people with difficulties distinguishing levels of abstraction

    (Under "people with difficulties distinguishing levels of abstraction" we find anyone who whips out something that he misunderstood being said by Gödel to make a point about what computers can or cannot do for example. Quite a few critics of AI are in this category...)

    Computers like rules – solid, hard-and-fast instructions to follow. How should we program them to handle difficult situations?

    Computer like nothing. They just execute stuff, in fact anything that is considered "computable".

    HUMANS like rules - solid, hard-and-fast instructions to be followed by a computer - because they have major difficulty conceptualizing, designing and debugging anything that is fluid, context-dependent and works with tons of heuristics to attack a problem in restricted, hard timeframes.

  11. Teddy the Bear

    Managing variables?

    Surely this is about managing the variables that can be managed? If Volvo are working towards (and are on track to) build cars where occupants do not suffer fatal accidents, surely lawmakers can mandate the building of autonomous cars which offer the same protections? That would remove the variable of killing occupants, and therefore anyone outside the car has priority. That could be a start.

    The moral machine also assumes mechanical failure - again, this is a variable which can be managed. Multiple redundant systems will help (certainly European cars already have redundant brake systems, though most people don't know that or know how to use it).

    I can't help thinking that philosophers are making the problem even more complex than it already is...

  12. J.G.Harston Silver badge

    Even if that trolley is full of shopping, you just stick out a hand and stop it.

  13. This post has been deleted by its author

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "For example, would an autonomous car that noticed a child running in the middle of traffic decide to run over your grandmother on the sidewalk instead?"

    An accident in London this week illustrates the point nicely.

  15. Kubla Cant Silver badge

    Moral accountability

    There's an important difference in moral accountability between the "trolley problem" response of a human driver and those of a self-driving car.

    Humans in this situation are usually making a decision very quickly, and probably under stress. This means that unless there is clear evidence to the contrary it will be accepted that their decision was not culpable.

    The machine, on the other hand, is following a set of rules that have been designed into it by the manufacturer. If it decides to kill a member of my family because the protocol says it should avoid a pair of schoolchildren, then that is premeditated killing by whoever wrote the rules. They might be guilty of murder or manslaughter; at the very least they would incur massive civil liability.

    It's hard to believe that anyone who's thought this through would want to manufacture a self-driving car.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Moral accountability

      You make some good points.

      Breaking the law is another problem. Driving onto an empty footpath to avoid hitting a person on the road is an obvious thing for a human driver to do. Driving onto the footpath is illegal, but, to save a life, I'm happy to risk prosecution, and of course in practice I wouldn't get prosecuted, or, if some loony brought a private prosecution, given more than a token punishment. However, would a company deliberately design a self-driving car to "deliberately" break the law, even if only in exceptional circumstances?

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Moral accountability

      No. All this pontification about moral dilemmas is really fucking stupid:

      The rules are simple:

      (1) Try not to hit anything

      (2) If you have to hit something, keep going straight and hit the brakes hard.

      Job done.

  16. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    "And if we’re going to make clearer rules, perhaps humans should follow them more closely too, as pedestrians, cyclists and drivers."

    And on that day, Satan will be skating to work.

    Okay, mabe a bit harsh...

    I, for one, am looking forward to a fusion-powered, driverless car to take me to my paperless office.

  17. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    a strong preference for choosing to save more people

    I've got news for society.

    I'm not getting into any autonomous vehicle whose prime tenet isn't 'protect the driver'.

    All the ethical questions are mine, to be considered in the instant that the autopilot alerts me to them. They are *never* to be the province of people who aren't there, making rules for situations they may well not understand.

    It's questions like this that made Isaac Asimov famous...

    1. Whitter

      Re: 'protect the driver'

      <Pedantry> While it is in charge, it is the driver: you are a passenger. >/Pedantry>

  18. Arthur the cat Silver badge

    An alternate take on the Trolley Problem


    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: An alternate take on the Trolley Problem

      And another, here:

      "Can I reach the lever without getting up?"

  19. abedarts

    The trolley problem isn't real life

    Its a waste of time worrying - in 40 years of driving I've never had to choose between running over X or Y group of vulnerable people, I just do the best I can and hope it never does.

    As the article makes plain, we as humans are doing a terrible job at driving - nearly 2000 deaths / year in the UK and we are one of the better ones.

    So I'll leap into a self driving car as as soon as I can afford one and in the mean time carry on listening to my smartphone and sat-nav system arguing with each other.

    1. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      Re: The trolley problem isn't real life

      in 40 years of driving I've never had to choose between running over X or Y group of vulnerable people

      Nor I, but maybe some drivers have had to make such a decision during that 40 years. If you're designing a self-driving car you have to equip it to do so, at which point you enter a murky world of evaluating human lives an injuries.

      The processing power required for this kind of decision will make the self-driving problem look trivial. In the end the only defensible algorithm will have to be based on head count. This implies that you should sometimes destroy the car if there's only one passenger in it, which contrasts with the Mercedes position of "we decided to kill these people to protect our customer".

    2. Bill B

      Re: The trolley problem isn't real life

      OK so let me pose another trolley problem. If the block to autonomous cars is the law and culpability for manslaughter, then change the law to remove the culpability. Our lawmakers now have the trolley problem. Do I bring in legislation to encourage the use of autonomous cars (and from existing evidence therebuy save lives) or do I leave the law as it is to low grieving relatives/friends someone to go after?

      Answers on a postcard please.

  20. Marketing Hack Silver badge

    Autonomous vehicles would be incapable of making many of the moral decisions discussed

    Hell, people can't tell whether one pedestrian is a serial killer and the next is a physician on the cusp of curing cancer. And if the car is programmed to avoid a younger person and hit an older one if the choice is forced upon it, how does the car make the decision of who is young and who is old? Does the car look for a person with difficulties in their gait, which may just be due to a twisted ankle or a pedestrian who is distracted while walking?

    I'd imagine an autonomous car would be able to get a fairly accurate count of a group of people, and decide to take some other course of action than plowing into that group. However, there are environmental conditions or even a fault in the car's electronics that might cause a car to mistake some other object(s) for a group of people.

    1. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

      Re: Autonomous vehicles would be incapable of making many of the moral decisions discussed


      Which is why decisions like this will eventually be based on whether the persons involved have basic, premium or, god help them, freemium accounts with the manufacturers / operators involved.

      I'm not trying to put the 'troll' in 'trolley problem' here. If you think things through, considering the socio-economical environment autonomous vehicles will be operated in, this is merely the logical conclusion.

  21. This Side Up

    Save drivers?

    "That might mean requiring cars to save drivers, as Mercedes has already decided to do."

    Um, I thought we were talking about driverless cars? I think you meant "occupants".

  22. Trigonoceps occipitalis

    higher perceived social values

    (doctors over criminals, criminals over lawyers for example)


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: higher perceived social values

      Please can we code it to run over politicians just for fun?

  23. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken Silver badge

    On the other hand, things might play out just like this.

  24. cambsukguy

    No one has mentioned

    That, by far, the best way to avoid casualties is to slow down as fast as machinely possible.

    Restraint systems in cars can reduce the speed of impact by an amazing amount, as anyone who has decided (or had to) 'jam' the anchors on.

    Since the time elapsed before braking is tiny for a computer compared to a human, there is already a vast improvement.

    This is because the energy of the collision increases with the square of the velocity so braking the car from 70 to 50 halves the total energy of the 'system'.

    The fact that the car can steer safely while also braking is a further improvement.

    One of Mercedes safety features is an automated braking system that slams the anchors on when the car perceives an impact is going to happen, one of the simpler things to intuit - no smart car stuff required.

    Of course, super-hard, aggressive braking will almost certainly help any other party in a collision too, or possibly avoid said collision (I have braked and avoided accidents myself in the past).

    My view is that a cars' occupants would be better served, along with those outside by a system that favoured braking above all else and violent braking at that, better to be safe than sorry.

    Smart cars will know if a following vehicle is too close, the effect of a rear-end collision, usually much less (head restraints). Very smart cars will tell the vehicle behind to brake too and so on.

    Along with bags and belts, the occupant is in a good place compared to other road users.

    As a regular cyclist, I know this for sure.

  25. Stuart Halliday
    Thumb Up

    Can I suggest a red flag 20M in front?

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Parker, deploy the machine guns

    Yes, m'lady...

  27. Richard Cranium

    The problem with the trolley problem...

    ... is that it's presented in a scenario where you have time to think. In reality your reaction time might be milliseconds and any action you take will be a reflex. Drivers are advised (taught?) not to swerve or brake to avoid hitting a small animal on the road but I find the reflex action is to swerve and/or brake. I don't think it would be possible to "unlearn" that for most of us unnecessary killing of a creature is hard-wired.

    In a real life trolley problem situation we'd just act on the first piece of information that our brains grasped: there's a person straight ahead, take avoiding action, no time to see and assess consequences beyond not wiping out that person.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Speed and road accidents

    On the whole speed isn't a *major* cause of accidents itself but those accidents which involve higher speeds result in greater injury. In the UK we have solved that problem. Although we have a hypothetical max speed limit of 70mph try doing that on the M25 - or increasingly any road used by cyclists - having recently driven up the narrow, winding, steep A57 Snake Pass with few opportunities to overtake confounded by traffic coming the other way so I'm driving at the speed of the lycra-clad arses in front of me...

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