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Algorithms Under Control: The Efforts to Help Self-driving Cars Remain Ethical via the Trolley Problem

Posted February 28, 2018 1:37 PM by IronWoman

I think by now we’ve all heard the hype surrounding automated vehicles. Sure, they seem like everything people have been hoping for since the airing of The Jetsons, but ask yourself one question: are they ethical? While it isn’t necessarily the first thought that comes to mind when imagining self-driving cars, a handful of professionals have paid it some heed. Olivia Goldhill explains further in her article “Philosophers are Building Ethical Algorithms to Help Control Self-driving Cars.”

Goldhill’s piece, published by Quartz Media LLC, delves into the potential downfalls of pre-programmed automobiles, or what philosophers are now calling a “myriad of ethical quandaries on wheels.” Their problem is with the Enactment of Moral Conundrum aka the Trolley Problem. To explain further, the Trolley Problem is a thought experiment in ethics: there is a runaway trolley racing down the tracks, headed straight for five people tied up on said tracks and unable to move. If you pull a lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks with one person tied up on the side track. You can either do nothing, killing the five people, or pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

So which is the most ethical choice? Nicholas Evans, philosophy professor at UMass Lowell, headed a study alongside two other philosophers and an engineer, where they built algorithms for various ethical theories – a language that can be read by computers. Their hope is that cars may have the ability to be programmed, when the time comes, to make specific moral split-second decisions. According to Goldhill, “[t]heir work, supported by a $556,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will allow them to create various Trolley Problem scenarios, and show how an autonomous car would respond according to the ethical theory it follows.”

Overall, the object of Evans and his team’s study is to garner results that influence others – like consumers or manufacturers – to make an informed decision. As Evans said, “…we have to have a discussion as a society about not just how much risk we’re willing to take but who we’re willing to expose to risk.” While the group hopes to eventually collaborate with autonomous car companies on this issue, other topics on the table include how to build traffic infrastructure to accommodate the advancements of personal and commercial vehicles.

An important question that arose during Evans and his cohorts’ study was: how could a set of values used to program self-driving cars be hacked (i.e. through physical changes like installing weaponry, or making the vehicle volatile in its decisions)? In addition, say manufacturers are able to pre-program autonomous vehicles specific to the needs and preferences of its driver. How will differently programmed vehicles react with one another on the road? In a separate yet related study, psychologists have begun research on the topic of autonomous cars and continued problems, conducting polls to uncover which moral solution of the vehicle’s choosing is the majority favorite among consumers.

At the end of the day, Nicholas Evans understands that his research only scratches the surface, not addressing the broader ethical issue surrounding autonomous cars. However, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo philosophy professor Patrick Lin has delved into it on his own, testing ethics encompassing advertising, liability, social issues and privacy when it comes to autonomous vehicles without incorporating the Trolley Problem. Another big question surrounding this change in travel has to do with survival rates: what hypothetical negative results will transpire from the positive results of people surviving car crashes? Will we suffer from rapid overpopulation, survivor’s guilt, etc.? The world may never truly know until we reach that point.

After reviewing the conducted research thus far, it is safe to say that autonomous cars will create massive unforeseen effects. I suppose that, for now, we’ll have to keep our eyes and ears open for studies to come – hopefully being mindful of advances towards autonomous car safety. Do you have any predictions when it comes to driverless technology in our future? Are you optimistic about this technological development or do you view it as a misstep?

Sources: Quartz Media, LLC, XKCD, Watt Knowledge, Monday Note

13 comments; last comment on 03/06/2018
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NYC Orders Solar Powered EV Charging Stations

Posted June 28, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Envision Solar International says it received a $2.14 million order from New York City for 32 of its EV ARC portable vehicle charging stations. The charging station fits inside a parking space and generates enough solar electricity to power up to 225 miles of EV driving.

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Automotive Use Drives Li-ion Demand Growth, Report Says

Posted June 22, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

The market for lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries was 87 GWh in 2016, a tenfold increase from a decade earlier. Automotive uses absorbed almost 50% of that Li-ion battery output in 2016 as the automotive market began to electrify its powertrains.

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1 comments; last comment on 06/24/2017
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The Role of Ultracapacitors in Automotive Technologies

Posted May 26, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Ultracapacitors have been integrated into conventional, electric, and hybrid-electric vehicles to help alleviate stress and extend the life of their batteries. They produce peak loads on demand and withstand repeated charge cycles without degradation, thereby improving fuel efficiency and reducing CO2emissions.

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6 comments; last comment on 06/01/2017
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Autonomous Vehicles: Innovation, Ethics, and Responsibility

Posted April 16, 2017 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Considering that American consumers are not entirely comfortable with autonomous vehicles (AV) and the ability of the vehicle to make "moral" decisions, the development of AVs has spawned questions and discussions around ethics and responsibility in engineering. Follow this discussion through the "trolley problem" to responsibility in research and innovation.

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114 comments; last comment on 05/22/2017
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