News, Science, Technology 2014-05-12

Robot cars might be programmed to hit you

A damaged robot car

A robot car might be designed to choose what to hit based on safety and traffic conditions

Wired recently ran a fascinating article on the realities of the future. Automated consumer road-side vehicles, or robot cars, are being promoted as safer alternatives to human driving. By and large they are, as humans can fall asleep at the wheel, take the wrong off-ramp, get distracted and so forth. It does mean, however, that cars must be programmed for every situation, and some situations that most people won’t have thought about…

What should robot cars hit?

When robot cars are on the road, they are scanning the environment around them. Mostly this so the cars know where to move and when, but in some cases an accident is going to happen. The software brain of robot cars will try to avoid the accident, but occasionally the accident is unavoidable. The cars must crash, but they might be able to choose where to crash to maximize safety for everyone. From Wired’s article:

Suppose that an autonomous car is faced with a terrible decision to crash into one of two objects. It could swerve to the left and hit a Volvo sport utility vehicle (SUV), or it could swerve to the right and hit a Mini Cooper. If you were programming the car to minimize harm to others–a sensible goal–which way would you instruct it go in this scenario?

As a matter of physics, you should choose a collision with a heavier vehicle that can better absorb the impact of a crash, which means programming the car to crash into the Volvo. Further, it makes sense to choose a collision with a vehicle that’s known for passenger safety, which again means crashing into the Volvo.

Now, take the following scenario from the same article:

The problem is starkly highlighted by the next scenario, also discussed by Noah Goodall, a research scientist at the Virginia Center for Transportation Innovation and Research. Again, imagine that an autonomous car is facing an imminent crash. It could select one of two targets to swerve into: either a motorcyclist who is wearing a helmet, or a motorcyclist who is not. What’s the right way to program the car?

In the name of crash-optimization, you should program the car to crash into whatever can best survive the collision. In the last scenario, that meant smashing into the Volvo SUV. Here, it means striking the motorcyclist who’s wearing a helmet.

Fascinating stuff. Now, obviously, no car manufacturer wants someone to die as a result of their product. This is an edge case where a hard decision has to be made in some unusual circumstance. We’re not going to have robot cars on the highways smashing into every motorist at will.

The future ain’t what it used to be

When we envision a future with robot cars, we frequently envision a clean and pristine future with shiny vehicles and smiles galore. This article highlights that the creators of this pristine future have to take into account various ugly realities of traveling down the highways in machines that weigh a ton or more. There are plenty of edge cases where hard decisions will need to be made in order to make sure that experiences on the road are, by and large, safer. Those edge cases are going to make some interesting headlines in the future.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.