Last updated July 18, 2018 at 9:24 am
We need to work out a legal framework for the coming transport revolution, Australia’s Chief Scientist says.
The rise and rise of the driverless car is as much about ethics as about engineering, and Australia’s Chief Scientist thinks it’s time we had a serious talk about it.
In particular, Dr Alan Finkel wants us to consider whether Australia needs a legal framework a bit like Germany’s, which essentially argues that cars must be programmed to avoid injury or death of people at all costs.
“It’s a sensible rule but is it the right rule?” he asks, noting the difficulty of trying to reduce a tough moral argument about the value of human life into a simple formula.
The German guidelines state that human safety must come first, and the fewest people possible must be harmed, so it’s largely is about numbers.
How will cars decide?
And all humans are considered equal, so a car’s software algorithms can’t be allowed to make decisions based not only on race, age or gender, but also on fame, profession, life situation or family responsibilities.
But is that the way we would actually want it? Should we prioritise pedestrians over passengers? Are two young children more important than four adults? Is a father of five more important than a bachelor?
Just as problematic from a legal sense, Finkel suggests, is the German position that makes companies liable for the decisions their cars make. Would Australian courts judge car companies more harshly than humans?
“The court understands that if you’ve only been given one second to make a decision, you might make a decision that another reasonable person might not have made,” he said.
“We understand for human beings that it’s complex. We allow a lot of different decisions to be made.
“Will we be as generous to a computerised algorithm that can run at much faster speeds than we can? I don’t know.”
The consensus, at least among political parties, seems to be that Australia needs to have this discussion sooner rather than later, even though the reality of driverless cars on our roads is quite a few years away.
The National Transport Commission, which advises federal and state governments on this issue, is working on new laws for driverless cars and recently developed rules for trials across Australia.