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Does moral imperative mean cars will never be really autonomous?

Google's got some. And they're starting to ply the streets of some Texas cities. A number of other businesses are trying to come up with their own versions. Tesla is one. The objective is to advance technology that might someday lead to making self-driving vehicles the norm. The proponents of such a vision say road travel will be much safer.

We waded into the subject of self-driving cars in one post back in May. The focus of that item was on the question of who might be held liable if an autonomous vehicle were found to have caused an accident that resulted in victims being hurt or killed. The answer to the question is still pending. But even if it does get cleared up to everyone's satisfaction there are some who are now posing new questions that reach deeper -- right down to the philosophical level.

At the heart of the issue is the question, can autonomous cars be made to make ethical driving decisions? Can they be programmed with moral GPS?

One big advocate of autonomous car technology used to dismiss such questions as unnecessary, but he has since changed his tune and is now pressing philosophers to focus on the issue.

That ethical dilemmas can crop up for human drivers can't be denied. For example, imagine that you are driving into a tunnel and a person suddenly appears in front of you. Your choice is to hit the person or crash into the wall and injure yourself or those with you. What do you do?

Like it or not, a choice will be made. The wisdom of the choice may become an issue -- perhaps as part of legal action by victims seeking compensation for pain and suffering. But what Stanford engineer Chris Gerdes wonders is what it will take to program cars so they can make such moral choices.

It should be interesting to see what comes of this effort.

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