The 21st Century Trolley

By Gali Katznelson

Here’s a 21st century twist on the classic ethics trolley dilemma: The trolley is a car, you are the passenger, and the car is driving itself. Should the autonomous car remain on its course, killing five people? Should the car swerve, taking down a different bystander while sparing the original five? Should the car drive off the road, and kill you, the passenger, instead? What if you’re pregnant? What if the bystander is pregnant? Or a child? Or holds the recipe to a cure for cancer?

The MIT Media Lab took this thought experiment out of the philosophy classroom by allowing users to test their moral judgements in a simulation. In this exercise, participants can decide which unavoidable harm an autonomous car must commit in difficult ethical scenarios such as those outlined above. The project is a poignant perversion of Philippa Foot’s famous 1967 trolley dilemma, not because it allows participants to evaluate their own judgements in comparison with other participants, but because it indicates that the thought experiment actually demands a solution. And fast.

Several companies including Google, Lyft, TeslaUber, and Mercedes-Benz are actively developing autonomous vehicles. Just last week the U.S. House of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE (Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment And Research In Vehicle Evolution) Act unanimously. Among several provisions, the act allows the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to regulate a car’s design and construction, and designates states to regulate insurance, liability and licensing. It also paves the way for the testing by car manufacturers of 25 000 autonomous cars in the first year, and up to 100 000 cars within three years. Continue reading