How Audi is going to answer the life-and-death questions of driverless cars

Whenever autonomous cars are discussed, the conversation always hits one fascinating, uneasy but ultimately frustrating dead end: ethics and morality. In lose-lose scenarios when a driverless software could be forced to choose between, say, hitting an elderly man and a pregnant woman, nobody really knows what the car should do. But that might be about to change. At the UN’s AI for Good Global Summit in Geneva today, Audi CEO Professor Rupert Stadler announced the Beyond initiative, a new project that’s finally looking to answer the difficult ethical questions associated with driverless cars.

How Audi is going to answer the life-and-death questions of driverless cars

In a keynote speech at the start of the summit, Stadler said: “In situations where an accident is unavoidable, we expect a decision from the autonomous car. But a dilemma situation cannot be solved either by a human or by a machine.” Instead, Stadler says carmakers need to move the question out of engineering labs and into the public eye – because it’s ultimately an issue that will affect us all.

“We need a discourse in society that looks at the enormous potential of piloted and autonomous driving in relation to the ethical and legal questions,” Stader says. “We take the concerns of the public seriously and are facing up to the challenges associated with this.”


Over the past two years, Audi has begun to answer this question by developing a unique pool of people – from internationally recognised experts in artificial intelligence to their counterparts in scientific and commercial spheres. Professors from MIT, Oxford and other universities around the world have been attending workshops in private, but now Audi says it’s time to give the floor to the public.

“The automobile industry cannot answer the ethical and legal questions of piloted and autonomous driving alone,” Stadler explains. “Science, business, politicians and society must work together.” As a next step, the initiative will therefore involve further multipliers and press ahead with research co-operations.

So how is Audi getting the public involved? That’s not yet clear, but the first step is to reveal the initiative he UN summit today. After that, it’s possible the Beyond initiative will release its progress more often – or even engage in multiple workshops around the world.


The technology is secondary

This is one of the first events on driverless cars that hasn’t mentioned the actual technology behind them, and that’s because it’s not really an issue anymore. Believe it or not, the technology itself is the more straightforward issue of autonomous car, and it’s getting better every year. Cars such as the 2017 Mercedes E-Class ship with highly sophisticated semi-autonomous technology, and we’re probably less than a decade away from being able to develop fully autonomous cars.

According to Stadler, the Audi A8 coming this summer will see advanced level 3 autonomous technology, and by 2020 or 2025 we should see fully autonomous, level 5 prototypes being tested. The race is on, not just to develop the technology, but to think through and explore the legal and moral implications around it – from insurance to ethical dilemmas. Driverless cars will arrive sooner rather than later, and society needs to work out how they should act, and how we should treat them. And that’s exactly what the Audi Beyond initiative aims to do.

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