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Autonomous cars leave many questions unanswered

No doubt, you have heard that driverless cars are on their way. You may remember such vehicles from fictional settings such as "I, Robot," "Jurassic Park" or the classic Batman series. For the most part, these vehicles seem simpatico with their chief passengers, making their drives effortless and safe, unless an archenemy got involved.

While it may seem almost impossible to fathom, the autonomous cars of science fiction movies are only a few years from reality. However, unlike the computers of sci-fi, which often have remarkably advanced human capabilities, the computers running the new breed of driverless cars are still in their developmental stages. In fact, you may be shocked to realize the ethical dilemmas these cars will face.

Fantasy into reality

The benefits of autonomous cars are limitless. The dangers of impaired, drowsy or distracted drivers may diminish to almost non-existence. People who are otherwise unable to drive — such as those with physical limitations, the elderly or those with vision impairments — may have the opportunity to operate a vehicle that they only dreamed of in the past.

However, a number of disturbing questions have raised debates about the decisions a car may have to make in a split second, for example:

  • Will the car prioritize your safety as a passenger over the lives of anyone not in the car?
  • If the car is in a no-win situation, will it aim for the smaller object, even if that is a child?
  • If your autonomous car is facing an inevitable crash, will the car sacrifice you and your family if it saved more lives?
  • Will the computer be able to recognize the difference between a squirrel and a child darting out in front of it?
  • Is it possible to program cars to avoid killing any person in any situation?

Perhaps the most practical question you may ask is whether you will be liable if your autonomous car injures or kills someone. After all, you weren't driving the car, and you didn't program the computer to make the decisions it made. This is a question lawmakers and the insurance industry must resolve before the cars are on the road in full force.

Car manufacturers, lawmakers and ethicists may hope these questions are moot since the advent of driverless cars is predicted to reduce traffic fatalities by an astounding 90 percent. If this comes true, you may expect to see changes in society you have never imagined.

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