Feb. 24, 2021

Why did the self-driving car cross the road?

CCAL hosts Dr. Tobey Scharding for an analysis of ethical decision-making in programming responses to crash scenarios in self-driving cars
Why did the self-driving car cross the road?

On January 29, Dr. Tobey Scharding presented the third session of the Ethical Leadership Speaker Series hosted by the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business (CCAL). This third session followed Dr. Robert Hughes in November and Dr. David Dick in October. Dr. Scharding is an Assistant Professor at Rutgers Business School. She specializes in business ethics and finance ethics. Her primary focus is using ethical theories to guide managerial decision-making around new business innovations. The topic of this talk was focused on “Recognizing everyone's interests: ethical decision-making about trade-off scenarios".

Dr. Scharding presented a relevant ethical problem in modern times; what should self-driving cars do in crash scenarios? Her presentation addressed timely questions related to the decision-making of self-driving cars in crash scenarios, specifically how when they are forced to choose between life and death scenarios. To address these questions, Dr. Scharding first examined three versions of the classic trolley problem, a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology which explore scenarios where an individual must make decisions whether to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill either one or five victims depending on the decision the individual makes. She illustrated the way that different ethical decision-making frameworks gave different answers about what should be done in the classic trolley problem scenarios, but then observed that none of the classic scenarios matched the new issues that arise with self-driving cars.

To address this modern problem, Dr. Scharding offered a new scenario where the car had three choices - turning left to sacrifice one person, turning right to sacrifice four people, or continue straight to sacrifice the driver himself/herself. Against this new scenario, Dr. Scharding considered four different ways the self driving car could be programmed to respond: 

  1. Sacrifice fewer people, prioritizing the choice that saves the most lives
  2. Protect passengers, which prioritizes the driver/vehicle above all else
  3. Equal concern for outcomes which leaves everything up to probabilities
  4. Recognize everyone's interests, which gives each individual a vote

Analysing the entire dilemma, it can be said that programming decisions in the event of a crash are not as black and white as people may think, and recognizing everyone’s interest would appear to be the only fair way of making a choice to escape the dilemma. Dr. Scharding had similar thoughts as she agreed that “everyone's interests” approach is the proper way of making ethical decisions and should be used by companies designing self-driving vehicles.

A lively question and answer session followed the talk, with students asking how legal implications and the probability of fatalities should bear on these trade-off scenarios. Dr. Scharding’s insightful presentation showed how modern-day ethical issues can be considered and addressed by various ethical frameworks, ultimately recommending an approach that recognizes everyone’s interests. This is approach is not limited self-driving car scenarios, and Dr. Scharding noted in closing the way that it might be applied to other current trade of scenarios concerning the Keystone XL Pipeline, hiring decisions regarding criminal defendants, and COVID-19 and lockdowns. These final thoughts, left students considering how this approach might guide their future business decisions.

The Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business will be hosting two more talks to close out the winter semester.