Autonomous Vehicles and Ethical Decision Making

Aaron Webb
3 min readJan 20, 2021

For centuries, philosophers have debated over the good and bad of ethical behavior to help shape the moral principles of today’s society

Influenced by a 1967, philosophical thought experiment known as the trolley problem, software engineers face similar dilemmas when programming autonomous vehicles to act in a certain way based on the views of humanity

However, the raw physics of how a vehicle interacts with the environment, the vehicle infrastructure, and cultural differences are ignored in this long-standing ethical question.

All of these provide interesting questions for manufactures to consider on whether an autonomous vehicle should hit a man or woman, republic or democrat, national citizen or foreigner, in favor of competitive advantage or ethical behavior.

In a perfect scenario, autonomous vehicles should be designed through a concept known as the veil of ignorance, where decisions are made without knowing your status in the world in order to make far greater ethical decisions.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the case in 2021, with the divide between people’s wealth, political views, and backgrounds growing at a faster rate fueled by individualistic and collectivist cultures led by nationalist parties.

Its likely autonomous vehicles will become ubiquitous regardless of philosophical debates. Unlike airspace, which is governed by powerful global regulatory bodies setting very high standards for pilots to adhere to when operating machines with much less traffic. The driving environment including regulations, infrastructure, and customs vary greatly from country to country.

Therefore, even if organizations can accurately tailor their technology to individual cultures, they’ll have to consider the varying landscapes and information systems that will aid autonomous vehicles.

The top four causes of car accidents in Australia are speeding, alcohol consumption, driver fatigue, and inattention/distraction while driving. All of these are easily prevented by autonomous vehicles, yet many experts predict we are still years away from autonomous vehicles being part of everyday life.

Aaron Webb

Aussie | Sponsored Triathlete | Master's Degree in Cyber Security | Founder of👋