A Self-Driving Car Might Decide You Should Die
Mitch Turck
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The Source Of Our Discomfort

Who is at fault? Who is to blame?

The question of responsibility is at the core of the trolley car thought experiment, and also at the core of this discussion of autonomous cars. The question resonates throughout our legal system as well, which has huge financial consequences for all parties.

We all have intuitions about fault that guide our emotional responses. In the trolley car story, we can conceptualize and rationalize using the switch, because it is remote from the act of murder. It’s much more difficult to distance oneself from the push off the bridge, even though the outcome is the same.

In the realm of the car, our moral sense faces the same divide. We can rationalize “1,000 deaths is a much better outcome than 30,000 deaths.” But when faced with the thought of losing a loved one in an autonomous car crash, it’s very difficult not to ask “whose fault?” just like we already do in car crashes with human drivers. And sure, it is convenient and comfortable to be able to blame a driver who erred or was reckless, or to blame an auto manufacturer for a defective part.

The crux of this issue, though, is that we are all making the choice to get behind the wheel. We are making choices about how roads are designed, how fast to drive, and countless other details — and we do know that these choices are responsible for those 30,000 deaths every year. The problem is that we know it rationally, but not emotionally.

The solution? To feel it emotionally. The feel the gut-wrenching loss and sense of guilt every time we get behind the wheel. To know, deep down, that we are playing with a gun, and that every so often it turns out to be loaded. Even if we didn’t mean to pull the trigger; even if we didn’t see the person walk in front of us; even if they weren’t looking where they were going; it’s still our fault for pointing that gun that we know, sometimes, is loaded.

Traffic deaths are our own damn fault. And that is uncomfortable.

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