Driverless car artificial intelligence should sacrifice its passengers if it means avoiding a disastrous accident that would claim more lives, the majority of people questioned in a survey have said.
However, the poll also found that few motorists would want to travel in such an ‘ethical’ vehicle.
Technology experts have said designers of future driverless cars will have to confront the dilemma for which there is no easy answer.
"Most people want to live in in a world where cars will minimise casualties, but everybody wants their own car to protect them at all costs," said the author of the study Dr Iyad Rahwan from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
It is thought that autonomous vehicles with intelligent computer software have the potential to eliminate up to 90 per cent of traffic accidents.
Recent surveys have found that 65 per cent of British motorists believe a human should always be in control of a vehicle and 70 per cent of Britons said they would not feel confident being a passenger in the first wave of driverless cars.
The US researchers investigated attitudes to the ethics of the technology in a series of six online surveys in which almost 2,000 people were asked to balance self-interest and public safety.
While people put public safety first as a general rule, they did not want to risk their own lives or those of their loved ones in driverless cars programmed to make sacrifices.
One survey found that 76 per cent of those questioned thought it would be more moral for an autonomous vehicle to sacrifice one passenger rather than kill 10 pedestrians but the rating dropped by a third when people considered the possibility of being the sacrificial victim.
At the same time, there was a strong reluctance to own or use autonomous vehicles programmed to avoid pedestrians at the expense of their own occupants.
Participants were also strongly opposed to the idea of government regulation of driverless cars to ensure they are programmed with utilitarian principles, or the ‘greater good’, in mind.
Writing in the same journal, psychologist Professor Joshua Greene, from Harvard University, said the design of ethical autonomous machines was ‘one of the thorniest challenges in artificial intelligence today’.
"Life-and-death trade-offs are unpleasant, and no matter which ethical principles autonomous vehicles adopt, they will be open to compelling criticisms,” he added.
"Manufacturers of utilitarian cars will be criticised for their willingness to kill their own passengers. Manufacturers of cars that privilege their own passengers will be criticised for devaluing the lives of others and their willingness to cause additional deaths. "
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