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Should self-driving cars make choices in a collision?

Self-driving cars may be the future. Or so we are made to believe. By some estimates, these cars are expected to see a compounded annual growth of 134% between now and 2020. But as legislation struggles to catch up with innovation, many good questions are arising. Can self-driving cars really reduce accidents?

The computers in self-driving cars are certainly less likely to be distracted as human drivers might be with passengers, devices, grooming, sightseeing, substances and so on. But still the complex algorithms that allow them to make decisions will be competing with an often-unpredictable world.

This will require them to make some choices that human drivers make every day in a split second, but in the case of a self-driving car, the decision is not made at the time of the accident. It is made perhaps thousands of miles away and months or even years earlier during the programming of the vehicles decision-making processes. And that decision could be life or death.

If a car had to choose between hitting pedestrians while saving the passenger of the autonomous car or missing the pedestrians, but potentially killing the passenger, what should it do? Research performed by Science magazine found the people polled to be very conflicted. On the one hand they thought the vehicle should try to reduce damage, which would mean avoiding the pedestrians. But on the other, they didn't want to ride in a car that would choose to kill the passenger to save the pedestrians.

To answer the question: Can self-driving cars really reduce accidents? The answer is most likely yes -- with proper regulations and testing. But some very difficult decisions will have to be made by society, legislators and the court systems. Choosing one or the other under these circumstances will not be easy, but the failing to make decisions could mean the loss of more life. Technology will continue to advance and it will be upon us to make sure our laws keep pace with it one way or the other.

Sources: The Huffington Post, "Self-driving Cars and an Underappreciated Impact They Will Bring," Michael Seo, March 18, 2016; ZDNet, "Should autonomous vehicles protect individuals or the greater good?," Kelly McSweeney, Aug. 25, 2016

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