Beyond the Trolley Problem: Three realistic, near-future ethical dilemmas about self-driving cars


Originally published at:


Does it make an ethical difference if your car is an Autobot or a Decepticon?



I imagine the problem is we are applying 2017 situations, not fully understanding how 2030 technology will affect our lives. Some people predict less and less people will “own” cars, and just “lease” the right to call upon and use a car from a fleet.

Number 3 has me laughing. Yeah, right, helicopter parents who won’t let their kids even play out side alone any more are going to let their kid strap into a driverless car. Riiiggghhhhttt. Not that they worry about the car driving per se, but someone following around an unattended kid and then kidnapping them at a stop light or something.

Hey - here is another scenario if parents ARE cool with their kid just hanging out in a car alone. School gets over at 3:15, work gets over at 5, and the soonest you could pick them up is 5:30. No problem, just drive them around town for a couple hours while they do home work and futz on the in car wifi on their tablets or something. Then they will both pull into the drive way together. No more expensive after care!


Sounds like Asimov needed a Fourth Law: A robot must not do irritating, waste-of-time things so long as it doesn’t conflict with the first three.


Non problems… (or at least not new)

  1. This happens now. It’s just that there needs to be 2 people present. But there is also a modified version where magic hazard flashers make the car into a non-obstacle (cars with magic hazard flashers also usually have the modification that prevents the driver from using said lights to indicate lane changes or turns)
  2. This happens now. People leave their cars lying around on public property all over town, all the time. No-one seems to care. I find it very strange. We’re not allowed to leave our other crap lying around like that
  3. This happens now. People who can afford it, send their nannies/assistants to pick up their kids. I’m sure if the little angels are on a tight after-school schedule for ballet/hockey/violin/yoga then the hired help is instructed to go early enough to be at the head of the queue

On the other hand the older article that Corey links to is excellent.


Come on, surely it’d take the kids home. You know to that smart home those nice parents have. Of course they won’t be let outside, but with computers, tablets, video games, and the internet who needs that. Besides someone will always be watching over them:


Number 3 is my favorite. Here let me pull my pants up as high as they go and give you my best “Back in my day…” speech…


Why would the supermarket parking lot be full of improperly parked cars if the autonomous cars (AC) can properly park themselves?
1.AC drops you off at the front of the store.
2.AC finds open parking space.
3.AC properly parks car.
4.When owner emerges from store, AC pulls around to loading zone.


What’s an AC’s “ethical response” when some pissed off human walks up and sits down with their hand on its wheel to let the air out of its tire?


Flame throwers. Obviously anyone attempting to interfere with its integrity is a terrorist.


The history of human progress has left in its wake an unending series of people fretting about the unexpected side effects that [fill_in_the_blank] would bring about. Somehow, we survived. And somehow, even supposed forward-thinking people still don’t recognize the obvious pattern, choosing instead to keep wearing their cranky pants.

This too shall pass.


Yes, and assuming self-driving cars can be programmed to do relatively simple things, like go back home and wait until a pre-programmed time to leave and come pick you up (or better yet, monitor traffic reports and determine when to leave so it arrives around a specified time) this will help the parking situation. Get your car to drop you off and go back home, then come back at the predetermined time and pick you up. No need to circle or take a spot at/near the event.


Yeah, the assumption here seems to be that cars would behave just like they do now, and the dynamics would be the same. They won’t be. I laughed at the idea of a two-autonomous-car family. It would be nothing more than an ostentatious display of wealth. Why would you have two autonomous cars? Families have two cars because at least one is necessarily tied up all day sitting in the employer’s parking lot. Not so with autonomous cars. The idea that cars would let you tweak their settings or apply sufficient manual control to make some of these scenarios possible seems highly unlikely. Plus, autonomous cars make personal car ownership that much less likely in general.


Parents who send their cars to fetch their children from school will very swiftly find that the interior of their cars will look and smell like portable toilets.



Remember those Johannesburg BMW’s that drove off carjackers?


These are all fairly trivial problems to solve, if they even end up being such a problem.

The nature of these cars, it seems to me, will mean that this kind of behavior will be impossible. All cars will be watching all other cars, and you.

*Autonomous cars will need to be able to watch each other.
*Autonomous cars will very likely also be networked together.
*This network will likely be monitored by police; they will have autonomous cars too after all.

This means that every car is now also a mobile surveillance drone.

*Even if you’re allowed to tell your car to say, go faster than the speed limit (unlikely), every other auto-car will see you do this, and report you.
*Custom firmware will be disallowed (this is a good thing, driving a car is not a right, those roads aren’t yours), and no one will care that this firmware is disallowed. There’s nothing you’d do with it. The standard firmware will be as convenient as it could be, attempts to game the system will offer so little benefit as to be pointless and any car running unsigned code will be found, tracked, and stopped. How? See the following.
*Manual drivers who use the defensive nature of autonomous cars to their advantage will also be identified and reported. Just imagine you drive like an ass, knowing autocars will get out of your way, imagine some empty ones coming out of the woodwork to box you in. Perhaps other autonomous vehicles, designed for this purpose (I’m thinking bulldozer blades on both sides) will box you in and physically immobilize you, perhaps even lifting your wheels off the ground to take you to the authorities.


This is from that inaugural TED talk given in the Upside Down universe, right?


Instead of custom firmware, allow the driver to specify a given level of risk or assholery they are willing to apply to the car, and charge a premium. Based on the person’s wealth, of course.

For a manually driven car, increase the cost of insurance based on pings from ACs (hopefully from pedestrians too, if they could tag an obnoxious driver somehow). This would be an automated version of the “tag bad drivers’ cars with paintballs” idea that I’ve heard a lot.

But I’d prefer not to have tattletale cars contributing to the surveillance state…