Autonomous vehicles need ethics so they can break road rules, report finds

An ethical framework that governs the driving behaviour of autonomous vehicles (AVs) when they deviate from sticking rigidly to the rules of the road should be developed by governments, road users and other stakeholders, transport experts have said.

In a report, 'Ethics of Automated Vehicles: Breaking Traffic Rules for Road Safety', the group warns that strictly forbidding AVs from breaking existing traffic rules may hamper road safety.

“While they promise to minimise road safety risk, AVs like hybrid AI systems can still create collision risk due to technological and human-system interaction issues, the complexity of traffic, interaction with other road users and vulnerable road users,” said UK transport consultant professor Nick Reed, from Reed Mobility.

“Ethical goal functions for AVs would enable developers to optimise driving behaviours for safety under conditions of uncertainty while allowing for differentiation of products according to brand values.”

The European Commission recently suggested that AVs may have to break strict traffic rules to minimise safety risks and to operate with appropriate transparency.

But the report finds there is a lot of nuance to this depending on the vehicle’s surroundings, for example AVs need to account for various traffic and environmental conditions that differ across countries and regions. In addition, cars are often designed or built in one country but used in another.

“An automated system that has ‘deduced’ driving behaviour from training examples cannot ‘explain’ or ‘justify’ its decisions or actions in a dangerous encounter,” said Flinders University professor Tania Leiman, who also worked on the report.

“This may be a problem if a manufacturer is required to explain specific behaviour in case of an incident or where civil or criminal liability is disputed.”

Speeding and mounting the curb to avoid collision are also evaluated as case studies in the research paper, with the idea that ethical goals should be established by extensive public consultation and deliberation to make them publicly acceptable and understood.

A standardised framework to enable vehicles travelling from one jurisdiction into the next should also be developed, the report finds, with updated road rules to make driving standards safe, predictable, reasonable, uniform, comfortable and explainable – both for drivers, manufacturers and all road users.

“We suggest responsibility for creating the framework of AV ethical goal functions should sit with an appropriate international body, for example, the Global Forum for Road Traffic Safety of the UNECE, and relevant individual country agencies such as the Department of Transport,” said co-author on the paper Dr Leon Kester, senior research scientist at TNO, The Netherlands. 

“Once an ethical goal function has been agreed and enacted by legislators, AV systems could be designed in such a way that they optimise with the highest utility for road users within predefined boundaries without having a predefined set of infinite scenarios and precise definitions on what to do.

“Also, we have to organise a socio-technological feedback loop where things can be evaluated and changed if we feel it is no longer according to our societal goals.”

Tesla, which produces vehicles that have limited autonomous functionality, have been accused of failing to develop sufficient safeguards in their driverless software.

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