Germany has implemented new ethics rules for autonomous cars that address ethical questions relating to the technology. This spring, the country’s Ethics Commission of the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, released guidelines for self-driving cars. The commission included 14 scientists and legal experts, and the ministry said it would implement and enforce them.
One of the report‘s recommendations was that human life should always have priority over property or animal life.
Another ethics rule stipulated that a surveillance system should record activity in order to determine the cause of any accident. This is similar to the so-called black box used in aircraft.
In addition, the report said that drivers should be able to decide what personal information is collected from a vehicle. Drivers would thus be able to prevent such data from being used to customize advertising.
Ethics rules for human-machine interactions
Interactions between people and machines such as service robots and self-driving cars “raises new ethical questions during this time of digitization and self-learning systems,” stated Alexander Dobrindt, Germany’s transport minister. “The ethics commission has done pioneering work and has developed the world’s first guidelines for automated driving. We are now implementing these guidelines.”
The ethics rules address a classic thought experiment: the “trolley problem.” One version of this exercise asks what should one do if when driving a trolley headed toward five people that will surely die if hit. The trolley driver could divert the trolley to another track, where only one person would die.
Should the driver actively choose to kill the one person over the five or not intervene and just let the train continue on its original path? What if the driver had information on the moral character of those potential victims — should that change anything?
Curious how you would handle this moral puzzle? Test your ethics using MIT’s Moral Machine.
German influence beyond the autobahn
The new ethics rules, along with German laws passed in the past few years, will influence other countries developing regulatory frameworks around the operation of autonomous vehicles. For instance, Germany, which is home to major automakers such as BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen, was among the first nations to specify requirements for the testing of self-driving cars.
According to a Deloitte study, German consumers have yet to be persuaded that autonomous vehicles are safe, despite the promises of greater convenience. Ethics rules could help address such concerns, but liability questions remain.
Last autumn, railway company Deutsche Bahn began testing EasyMile’s EZ10 autonomous shuttle bus in Germany. In April, BMW opened a testing facility in Germany to combine IT and machine learning expertise with automotive research and development.
China and the U.K. have also been working on legislation for testing, while the U.S. has had a less-centralized approach. Back in March, Eric Hilgendorf, a legal expert at the University of Wuerzburg who served on the ethics rules body, told Reuters that he had been invited to lecture in China. Hilgendorf noted that China could follow Germany’s model of ethics rules for autonomous vehicles.