Self-driving vehicles: Safe, but not 100%
Autonomous, self-driving cars are being tested and trained extensively and have already covered thousands of miles of real road driving. Incidents are remarkably rare. However, any accidents – especially if they involve fatalities – are covered broadly in media all over the world, and consumers wonder whether autonomous vehicles (AVs) are actually safe, and whether they should ever trust them. Experts agree that AVs do have the potential to benefit the world by increasing traffic efficiency, reducing pollution and eliminating up to 90% of traffic accidents – those that are caused by driver error, tiredness, drunkenness or other human factors. Though safety is constantly improving and injuries and deaths might be significantly reduced, crashes will never be completely avoidable. And any imminent crashes will require AVs to make difficult decisions.
How to react when a crash is imminent?
Imagine, as an example, situations as depicted in Figure 1. The AV may avoid harming several pedestrians by swerving and sacrificing a passerby (A), or the AV may be faced with the choice of sacrificing its own passenger to save one (B) or more (C) pedestrians.
Although these scenarios appear unlikely, even low-probability events are bound to occur with millions of AVs on the road. Furthermore, the tradeoffs involved in these scenarios will occur in much more frequent, but less extreme scenarios: instead of choosing between certain death, the car will need to choose between slightly increasing the risk toward one group rather than toward another. AV programming must include decision rules about what to do when these situations occur.