“We need clear ethical boundaries”

Who is responsible for the decisions made by automated self-driving cars? This question was discussed by Continental CEO Dr. Elmar Degenhart and the philosopher Professor Rafael Capurro.

VDA President Matthias Wissmann described the third event in the series of dialogues of the “Mobility of Tomorrow” initiative as a “meeting of two worlds”. As it turns out, he lived up to his promise: the head of one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world met one of the most renowned philosophers in the field of digital ethics. As one might expect, the discussion between Dr. Elmar Degenhart, Chief Executive Officer of Continental AG, and academic Prof. Rafael Capurro was quite intriguing. The debate that evening concerned the question of how continual advances in automation are changing mobility – and above all, who is responsible when drivers hand over more and more control of their vehicle.

The discussion between the two experts made it clear that there are no simple answers to this question. We are well on the way to the development of fully automated and autonomous driving, where drivers are no longer responsible for the behavior of the vehicle in extreme situations. Yet who will make the decisions about the guidelines for such automated systems? “As long as electronics are programmed, our software developers make these decisions”, said Continental CEO Elmar Degenhart. “We cannot leave it to them alone. We need clear ethical rules for the programming.”

Philosopher Rafael Capurro voiced his concern, stating that moral responsibilities could not be explained away using algorithms”, especially in a such a complex matter as road traffic. “We cannot predict every possible situation that may occur,” he said. In addition, there are so many cultural differences in the world that it would be impossible to establish universal rules. “Human thinking about morality cannot be replaced.”

Degenhart agreed that one could not “perfectly program” every situation. Yet he was more optimistic than Capurro about the chances of resolving this dilemma in the future. “We need a certain degree of pragmatism”, he said. For him, this meant orienting automated system decision-making to two fundamental rules: First, always try to avoid a collision. Second, if that is not possible, reduce the speed of the vehicle as much as possible.

In his keynote speech at the beginning of the evening, Degenhart had demonstrated that it is worthwhile to promote assisted and automated driving despite these challenges. Progressive automation could help considerably reduce the number of traffic deaths worldwide (about 1.3 million per year). “Accidents belong in museums because we have the technology to avoid them,” he said. On the other hand, assisted and automated driving, as well as the networking of infrastructures, could enable better traffic management, saving time and reducing stress. After all, he claimed, everyone these days spends an average of 1.5 years of their lives in a traffic jam.

So what is to be done? Degenhart welcomed the Federal Minister of Transportation’s establishment of an ethics committee for automated driving as a first step in the right direction. “When the technology is ready, we must have the corresponding rules and regulations available.” However, “a few basic rules and regulations” would be more helpful for the industry than scores of them. Moreover, international solutions are necessary.

Capurro also called for the creation of consultative bodies in which legal and ethical issues pertaining to digital mobility are discussed in an international and intercultural setting. Only by working together can solutions be found, because the challenge is great: a middle ground must be found between the extreme of foregoing automation entirely and that of handing power over to algorithms. This is a process which needs time.

This is all the more important given that the German automotive industry is already thinking about these issues – even though Degenhart predicts that fully automated driving cannot be expected before 2025. “Drivers must not lose confidence (in this technology) before then. This is not about speed, but about reliability and robustness,” he said. Thus, there is at least some time to find answers to the questions raised at this event.