Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Who to Kill? An Ethical Dilemma for Driverless Cars

By AusSMC

A study published in Science has found that people generally approve of autonomous cars that have been programmed to sacrifice their passengers if it will save others, yet these same people aren’t keen to ride in such “utilitarian” vehicles themselves.

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Given that driverless cars are less than a decade away, we need to work out, as a society, how we program such systems. Unlike the past, where if you survived an accident you could be brought in front of the courts if you drove irresponsibly, we will have to program computers with behaviours in advance that determine how they react in such situations.

I would, however, caution the results that can be taken away from studies like these undertaken on Amazon Turk, where participants are not themselves under any danger and had plenty of time to decide what the system should do. This may not reflect how we would, as drivers of cars, act in such moments of crisis.

Nevertheless, it is good to see such work, for the uptake of driverless cars will have a profound benefit on society, reducing road deaths greatly, and liberating many groups like the elderly and the disabled who are currently denied personal mobility.

Prof Toby Walsh is the Research Leader of the Optimisation Research Group at NICTA.


The study sheds some light on the state of public sentiment on this ethical issue. It shows that aligning moral AI driving algorithms with human values is a major challenge – there is no easy answer!

What I found interesting in this research is that participants were reluctant to accept government regulations of utilitarian...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.

Original study published in Science.