Assignment 5.2 – Selfdriving Cars


Imagine you are part of an ethics and moral commission of a major automaker. You have the task to make decisions about the behaviour of the autopilot in safety-relevant situations.


Try to figure out how you personally feel about the topic. Should the autopilot actively intervene in dangerous situations and abruptly change lanes or should it not change direction and thus avoid a possible collision with other road users in the other lane? Should the autopilot always put the personal well-being of the driver above that of other road users? Should the autopilot make a difference between men and women? Children and adults? Humans and animals?

Who do you think should be part of such an ethics and morality commission? Which people with which professional backgrounds should be involved besides the developer?


Try to explain your opinions on these morally very difficult questions to the other members of the Commission. Try to understand each other’s point of view and discuss the decision-making behaviour of an autopilot.

What parameters should an autopilot use to make decisions?

21 thoughts on “Assignment 5.2 – Selfdriving Cars”

  1. First of all, I have to say that I’m not the biggest fan of self-driving cars in general. In the second video and presentation are the functionality of the sensors and systems of a self-driving car explained. All of these systems works with a Wi-Fi-connection and a GPS or radar function. The car is connected to the internet to check to location every second. I think that hackers could infiltrate into the network easily because this technique is new and the data safety is just in progress. So it’s not safe to drive with these kind of cars. I can’t trust a car, which can be manipulated by cyber criminals.

    However, the teaching materials would be simple and suitable for children in age between 14 and 18. One part of the technique is the wave theory. Teacher have to educate the systematic of transverse waves and longitudinal waves. Huygens-Fresnel’s principle is also elementary such as the expansion of elementary waves. All these matters are taught in the sixth and seventh grade of a secondary school. Another simple part of science are optics. Reflection, Rafraction and Diffraction are the three possibilities of the expansion of a wave. This is a common educational matter too. However, there are also complicated parts about the self-driving car. Interference diagrams or the functionality of GPS are not that easy to understand. Although it is taught in secondary school too.
    Moreover, it could be interesting to understand all of these location identification. As well as the different functions of a self-driving car, such as self-parking due to ultrasonic sensors or the variety of vehicle systems. I think it is a very fascinating topic for students between the age of 14 and 18.
    Last but not least is the legal situation important, because there are a lot of new laws about the rules and regulations of a self-driving car.
    Finally, I think that the technology around the self-driving car is very interesting, especially for students of a secondary school. The educational matters are often elementary and teacher should not have problems to teach this topic!

    Moritz Griebichler

  2. Selfdriving cars are expected to have a bright future and are praised to be the next big step for humanity when it comes to transportation. That is why it is especially important to include this topic in physics lessons.

    Teachers could explain the functionality of radar systems, electric motors or the GPS system which are all closely connected to selfdriving cars. Another aspect that is worth looking at is the electric motor. I think it would be very interesting for pupils to learn how this type of motor works and which principles apply. This topic even surpasses physics and is worth to be looked at from many perspectives, e.g. biology teachers could talk about environmental impacts of different types of motors. Other important aspects that transcend physics are for example ethnical questions or the current legal situation.

    To conclude this, I would say it would definitely boost pupil’s interest in engineering if the topic selfdriving cars is included in physics lessons.

  3. Personally, I think that answering the question about the autopilot should intervene or not in dangerous situation it’s very difficult, because now we are reasoning with a set of rules and roads that had been conceived without the idea of an autopilot. So, I think that we could answer to this question only if we make some hypothesis about how roads and rules would change with autopilot driven cars. Of course, the personal well-being of a driver should not become a danger for other people, man or women, children or adults. Commission studying that problem should involve, I think, lawjers, psycologists, pedagogists, anthropologists, politicians, sociologists and engineers, because the automation of the transport it’s a topic that concern both ethical and technical problems, regarding the future of all mankind.

  4. This is a very difficult task! It’s a mix of ethical and technical issues. The autopilot should make a decision on the basis of the inputs recevied by the control system, but making a decision is not quite easy. Operative research and Game theory are involved. So the autopilot should be equipped with a system quickly able to interpret a lot of scenarios. Are we talking about an advanced artificial intelligence? Maybe… Indeed, the system should learn the habits and the behaviors of the driver and increase the number of scenarios along with the scenarios previously loaded. Surely the system must alert the pilot as is already the case in some cars, but if the autopilot takes the control over instead of the driver, there can be create a more dangerous conflict.
    And because of that an hypothetical commission should be made not only by technicians (e.g. engineers and physicians), but also by psychologists, mathematicians and experts in law.

  5. I would never be part of such a commission and I honestly do not know who could be part of it.
    I wouldn’t like to have fully automatic cars on the road. Some levels of automation surely improve driving comfort, reduce traffic problems and pollution, makes roads safer for all users, but at any time driver must be able to take back control, in particular in case of extreme danger.
    I completely agree with my collegues (Simone, Mariangela,…): when the lives of more people are at risk the control and responsibility of decision must turn back to driver.

  6. Personally I do not believe in a different value of human lives; in my opinion, an autopilot must choose the solution that puts at risk the least number of people, calculating the probability and the extent of the damage, or the success rate of the maneuver. I love animals, but I think that in these circumstances they have to be put in the background. I do not think it’s right to jeopardize a person’s life to try and save an animal.

  7. Try to figure out how you personally feel about the topic. Should the autopilot actively intervene in dangerous situations and abruptly change lanes or should it not change direction and thus avoid a possible collision with other road users in the other lane?
    I think that autopilot could improve the traffic situations and maybe reduce the accident due to high speed or driver’s inattention, but in other ones the autopilot is not ready to react and take the right decision in order to avoid a possible collision, a good driver can try better to do it. Sometimes human instint works better than a machine.

  8. If I was part of a commission I would not be able to make decisions for who to save in self-driving car crashes in most situations. I think legislators will have to define the guidelines about ethical choices to set the algoritms, after a transparent comparison with the public opinion.

  9. Every driver has to adapt its speed according to all possible situations that can happen. Especially autonomous cars have to, so that none of these situations can happen. If I approach a crossway I have to slow down and have eye-contact. Only if I have the impression that all other participants can see me and I can trust them I can go faster. Otherwise I have to drive with walking speed.
    If nevertheless an unexpected situation occurs the vehicle should save the others.
    Only in this case the manufacturers will do everything they can to make a maximum safety system.

  10. A notable advantage of self-driving cars is certainly the decline in accidents due to human errors or wrong choices, such as driving in drunkenness or distraction.
    Self-driving cars may be able to remove all of these accidents, remaining vulnerable only to mechanical problems, which, however, given the continuous connection could be kept under control.
    Artificial Intelligence (IA) systems, which in the near future will control autonomously driven automobiles, will have to make difficult moral decisions, but these decisions will have to be worked out first of all by states and governments.

  11. I think that all automatic devices able to improve the safety of cars are very important and should be increased more and more. But I think that the decisions on the manoeuvres to be carried out in case of danger must always left to the driver. In fact, given the important ethical aspects related to these decisions, I don’t think that thay can be delegated to a computer.

  12. I believe the main issue on the selfdriving car topic concerns the safety of passengers and pedestrians. In a dangerous situation, will the autonomous vehicle decide to save the lives of pedestrians by sacrificing that of passengers or will it make the opposite choice? This in my opinion is the biggest challenge for those working on these technologies: to create an algorithm able to make decisions that avoid disastrous consequences.
    Selfdriving vehicles can certainly provide us with several advantages: reducing traffic, reducing pollution and reducing accidents.
    But not all accidents, however, can be avoided; and in those moments the autopilot will have to make a decision.
    Programming the right decision is not so simple, we should align the algorithms with human values starting from a collective discussion on ethics to be followed by selfdriving vehicles. This is a huge challenge if we consider the many cultural and social aspects that characterize peoples all over the world.
    Selfdriving vehicles will make decisions based on data such as speed, road condition, weather, distances and other detectable elements. Therefore, the challenge will also concern the capacity and processing speed of all these data to avoid dangerous situations.
    One thing is certain, we must solve the ethical dilemma of selfdriving cars as soon as possible if we really want to have them on our roads.

    1. I agree with Luca. I think the algorithm that will be programmed could be very complex but I doubt that we can program the empathy and the discretion of the human decision. It is also true that there are many accidents due to the lack of respect for road rules and to the unconsciousness in driving.

  13. I think that autopilot program could be an interesting development in order to reduce traffic. However it would be very dangerous in some situations. Autopilot program should change direction unexpectedly without consider surrounding. In fact human mind can evaluate a real risk forecasting it. Autopilot program instead acts only in case the risk is real. For these reasons I find hard to imagine an autopilot program based on moral considerations bypassing human mind and thoughts.

  14. Levels of automation that make me feel comfortable are only the first one (Driver assistance) and the second one (Partial automation). Giving too much decisive autonomy to a car makes me uneasy: as long as the system is working, it can certainly do better than a human being… the problem is when it does not work (or when others takes the control: someone has written that hackers are able to enter the car’s control system…).
    Moreover, I realize that most of the accidents are due to human errors and that self-driving cars could avoid many of them; but I just have the feeling that human error is more acceptable than a machine error.
    Finally, I think moral decisions (such as those illustrated in the slide number 31) should be taken only by human beings.

    So, the option “Taking back control at any time” is essential for me in the case of an automation level greater than level 2.

  15. Regardless of the fact that I just have to imagine being part of an ethics and a moral commission of a big car company, I can only add that today I disagree on the use of the autopoilot. Agreeing with what was said by Mariangela Conzato “I would refuse to program an autopilot to act in dangerous situations when it is necessary to decide which human must be saved”.

  16. to be part of this commission would be too burdensome for me .. and I do not know what figure could, should and have the right be part of it, however certainly to circulate the autopilot, would be to review the entire road network, in any case your questions contradict each other, because is impossible that the autopilot does to act in the driver’s well-being if he changes lanes generating a collision, in a frontal accident the driver would also be injured.
    So with the current road network it would be impossible for the autopilot to act independently without creating damage to third parties, unless it stops immediately.

  17. If I were part of an ethic and moral commission of a major automaker I would refuse to programme an autopilot to act in dangerous situations when it is needed to decide which human has to be saved. I think that in such a situation the commands and the responsibilities have to turn back to the driver. It is no possible to decide life or death of anybody. These are my thoughts.

  18. First of all I’m really glad that I am not a part of an ethic commission, because those are really hard questions/problems to figure out… The only thing that I support with certainty is that the autopilot should make a difference between humans and animals. Yes, I know it sound cruel and heartless, but in my opinion in those situations a human life is more worth than that of an animal.
    I can also not answer the question of who should be part of the commission, I only can tell who shouldn’t: I think it’s really important that no major economic or political power prevail in this commission. The danger is too big that the profit will override the “humanity”.

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