Mercedes opens the autonomous driving ethics debate

January 8, 2016

Mercedes-Benz’s research director encourages the industry to discuss the ethics of self-driving software

“It would be unrealistic to say we have solved the problem, which is why we think it is important that the community talks about it,” says Herbert Kohler, Mercedes-Benz vice president of research and sustainability.

The problem? It’s what used to be described by the Met Police driving school instructors as the pram or the bus stop dilemma, where an accident is inevitable and it’s a super rare eventuality where you have to chose between two bad outcomes. In the case of a self-driving car this theoretical situation is a philosophical problem that needs to be addressed, according to Kohler.

“I think it is a most important topic that we need to put on the table, he says”

Kohler suggests that a failure to address the problem in the software of an autonomous car could result in a ‘Hindenburg’ moment, which could turn the public against the technology of self-driving cars. The LZ 129 Hindenburg airship caught fire in May 1937, killing 36 and effectively burying the then growing technology of lighter-than-air passenger craft.   

“Everyone knows now that this was burning not an explosion,” says Kohler, but he thinks the consequences of a similar freak accident would be a major setback for the autonomous car movement.

“We did have a discussion about whether or not we should include this in our presentation,” he says, “but I thought it was absolutely important to do so.”

Kohler also thinks that the brave new world of the consumer electronics industry might not provide all the answers for the harsher automotive environment.

“In the two-and-a-half year development of the  F 015 Luxury in Motion  [Mercedes latest self-driving concept car] we have recognised that most of the automotive requirements couldn’t be satisfied by the consumer electronics industry,” he says, “including temperature requirements, shaking and vibration, and harshness. This is not a conflict, but we have to be cautious.”

Kohler continued: “There are a lot of things we need from the old world. I have been on the board of Tesla for some years. At first they were doing things very differently which was a source of pride, but in the last 18 months they have realised they were running out of know-how to actually build a car and needed to hire people with experience from the motor industry. In my opinion there will be a challenge to find a right way between the old and the new.”

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