It is a question that has grown in urgency since the prospect of truly autonomous cars became a close reality: what does a computer-driven car do when faced with a crash?
With decisions likely to be made by algorithms in milliseconds, there will likely need to be a moral component pulled into systems: should a car protect its inhabitants at all costs? Or should it weigh up the likelihood of injury or death to others?
When faced with crashing into a woman with a stroller or swerving and hitting a tree, which should the car choose to do?
Well, one company has the answer. Luxury car manufacturer Mercedes likely reflects the attitude of its customers when it decided that those in the hurtling metal box come first, and the squishy non-car-driving masses a firm last in life-and-death stakes.
Safety executives at the company told Auto Express that despite all the hand-wringing from philosophers, lawyers and legislators, the answer is quite simple: cars come first.
"If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car," Christoph von Hugo told the publication in an interview at the Paris Motor Show. "If all you know for sure is that one thing, one death, can be prevented then that's your first priority."
Amazingly, von Hugo continues to equate the value of a car as greater than that of a human: "You could sacrifice the car, but then the people you've saved, you don't know what happens to them after that in situations that are often very complex, so you save the ones you know you can save."
Ach, what's few deaths?
That car-first approach is perhaps to be expected from a car company, although we suspect that people with a greater sense of moral responsibility might feel a little differently – especially since in many cases the lives being saved are the ones who put the fast metal box in the precarious situation in the first place.
But von Hugo doesn't worry too much about that, because he thinks the whole thing is overblown anyway: "We believe this ethical question won't be as relevant as people believe today ... 99 percent of our engineering work is to prevent these situations from happening at all."
But while he acknowledged that there will be situations where a car's systems will effectively decide whether to crash itself or run over a pedestrian, he takes comfort in the fact that, overall, the number of instances will be lower.
"There are situations that today's driver can't handle that, from a physical stand point, we can't prevent today and that with automated vehicles we can't prevent either," he noted, "but it will be far better than the average driver."
So there you go: if you can afford to buy a Mercedes, you have every right to expect it to decide in your favor rather than have to consider the peasants moving around using their legs. It's better for humanity this way. ®