Can a self-driving car negotiate a moral maze?

Moral and ethical issues need to be overcome as well as technological challenges. ©Dasha Petrenko/

Moral and ethical issues need to be overcome as well as technological challenges. ©Dasha Petrenko/

(Relaxnews) – If a tree falling in a forest hits an autonomous car and there’s no one there to see it, does it make a sound? It may seem like a bizarre question; but as well as technological challenges, the road to autonomous cars is littered with ethical, moral and even philosophical obstacles that need to be overcome before self-driving vehicles can take to the streets.

“Who is responsible for autonomous driving – the driver, the vehicle owner, or the manufacturer? Since robots cannot act like humans or be treated like them, we must clarify how to assign our criteria from criminal law, civil law and common morals to the new technologies,” said Prof. Dr. Julian Nida-Rümelin, Professor of Philosophy at LMU Munich.

Nida-Rümelin, an expert in the field of technology ethics, is one of over 100 experts attempting to address these questions at a special symposium, “Autonomous Driving, Law and Ethics”, this week in Germany, organized by Mercedes-Benz parent company Daimler.

Theoretically, autonomous cars could cut road collision deaths, congestion, pollution and driver stress levels overnight while simultaneously boosting many people’s quality of life. Yet until there is a consensus regarding not just liability but, for instance, how a self driving car is programmed to act in an unexpected traffic situation or how it collects and potentially uses personal data, progress towards reality will be slow.

“The safety of every road user is our top priority for automated driving as well. Just as important as technical developments is that our customers have legal certainty and security when it comes to ethical and data protection matters,” said Dr. Christine Hohmann-Dennhardt, Member of the Board of Management of Daimler AG, responsible for Integrity and Legal Affairs.

What isn’t open for discussion at the symposium, however, is the technological feasibility of self driving cars; everyone is in agreement that it is simply a question of when, rather than if. Dr Hohmann-Dennhardt is convinced that the advantages offered are so great that autonomous cars will become a fixture of future mobility, a sentiment shared by every major carmaker at this month’s Frankfurt motor show.

When asked to describe the current landscape from a technological point of view, Renault Nissan Alliance CEO Carlos Ghosn described the industry as being in search mode — i.e., evaluating the different approaches and technologies available to deliver what consumers are expecting.

“We are all eager to move quickly but are also cautious about if we are going in the right direction. Are we with the right partner, are we using the right technologies? So we obviously want to move quickly but we want to make sure we are moving quickly on the right road,” he said.

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