The Ethics of Self-Driving Cars (2023)

(Video) The Real Moral Dilemma of Self-Driving Cars

Should cars determine if you live or die?

The Ethics of Self-Driving Cars (2)

Self-driving cars already exist and humans share our roads and freeways with them. They are one of the most technologically advanced innovations created by humans to date. Like any new technology, there will be new ethical issues surrounding it.

Is it ethical to produce self-driving cars whose choices will affect the livelihood of the driver and surroundings?

(Video) The Ethics of Self-Driving Cars | Philosophy Tube

I’ll discuss evidence on why it is ethical to produce self-driving cars, as well as the evidence against the production of self-driving cars. After taking a consequentialist approach to analyze both sides, I will conclude with the most ethical answer to the question above.

Self-driving car enthusiasts:

Their expectation is to be able to utilize autonomous cars to get them from point A to point B. They value the innovation, efficiency, reliability, safety, and accessibility of self-driving cars.

Companies that create autonomous cars (i.e. Tesla and Google):

Their expectation is to be able to provide the service demanded by self-driving car enthusiasts. They value the openness of society towards the creation of autonomous cars, the freedom to innovate, and the ongoing support from self-driving car enthusiasts.


Their expectation is to not be harmed by autonomous cars when they are traveling. They believe it is the social and corporate responsibility of companies and the government to ensure the safety and well-being of all bystanders. They value that self-driving car companies and owners will be responsible for any harm caused by their cars.

Policymakers and the government:

Their expectation is to improve society by creating rules and regulations for new innovations, minimizing risk, and protecting citizens. They value safety, efficiency, and productivity.

The algorithms are very smart and created by the greatest and brightest people:

  • In Self-driving cars make ethical choices, Nelson explains the complex algorithm Google and similar companies have built to create self-driving cars. The process to build the software was not simple and required the smartest and brightest people around the world. After all, Google’s hiring rate is around 0.2% (Eadicicco). These companies are known to hire not only the most prestigious applicants with the proper skill sets but also the most ethical and worldly individuals. Building the self-driving cars took many years of research, development, and collaboration between cross-functional teams, as every detail was meticulously studied and tested. The algorithms are continuous learning and ongoing improvements are constantly being made to improve the self-driving car technology.
  • Nelson explains how Google’s self-driving algorithm works. When a self-driving car sees a cyclist, it would move slightly over in its lane to give the cyclist more space. Google’s algorithm calculates the probability by risk magnitude, compares it to the value of information to be gained, and uses that to make decisions. Getting sideswiped by a truck has a risk magnitude of 5,000, getting into a head-on crash with another car has a risk magnitude of 20,000, and hitting a pedestrian has a risk magnitude of 100,000 (Nelson). This point system calculates the value to different scenarios, people, animals, objects, and makes quick decisions for the best course of action.
  • Driving will always involve risk for various parties, and Google has shared its viewpoint on the ethical decision-making process by distributing risk among the parties. Google believes that self-driving cars can make ethical decisions if engineers program them to learn and calculate the value of real-life situations. The algorithms developed by Google and similar companies hold years of thought and research by the top thinkers in the world. Therefore, many may argue that this justifies the case for autonomous cars.

Evidence shows self-driving cars are safer than human-controlled automobiles

  • In a 2015 report by McKinsey and Company, evidence shows that self-driving cars will dramatically decrease car accidents by up to 90%, prevent up to $190 billion in damages and health-costs annually, and save thousands of lives (Ramsey). Autonomous cars are programmed to obey all traffic laws. Self-driving cars are never distracted by their phones when driving, nor do they drive drunk or fall asleep. Autonomous cars are excellent at detecting and avoiding obstacles and have stronger visual acuity than the human eye on bad roads. Autonomous cars have a 360-degree view of their surroundings and can process significantly more information than any human. In 2017, there were an estimated 40,000 traffic fatalities in the United States and more than 90% of them were caused by human error (Isidore). Autonomous cars have the potential to prevent 90% of collisions, saving about 30,000 lives annually in the United States alone (Scott). Research shows that autonomous car accidents are much rarer than human-caused accidents; the negative perception is mainly due to media blowing the situation out of proportion (Bohn).
  • Moreover, people are not receptive to self-driving cars due to the weakness of human emotion. When humans are involved in a car accident, it is easy to forgive because we recognize that people are programmed to protect themselves in the heat of the moment. However, people do not have the same mindset when it comes to autonomous cars because machines do not react; they are deliberately programmed to perform specific actions (Trappl). Although there is clear evidence that self-driving cars are much safer than human-driven cars by removing human error from the driving equation, many cannot overlook the benefits due to being blindsided by the few autonomous car accidents that have occurred.

Autonomous cars will make the world a better place

  • Self-driving cars can improve everyone’s lifestyle. The National Science Foundation found that with self-driving cars, improvements in traffic flow are boosted: “having a single self-driving car on the road can reduce congestion by influencing the traffic flow of at least 20 human-controlled automobiles around it” (Brown). Autonomous cars help ensure movement at a constant speed instead of creating traffic jams that are often caused by humans breaking and slowing down aggressively. As traffic is a major issue for cities across the world, this is one of the many reasons to justify self-driving cars.
  • In addition, fuel consumption is also minimized with autonomous cars. The National Science Foundation found that self-driving cars can reduce total fuel consumption during traffic jams by 40% (Brown, 2018). The Energy Information Administration predicted that by 2050, autonomous cars could reduce fuel consumption by as much as 44% for vehicles and 18% for trucks (McMahon). The Transportation Society of America projects that self-driving cars could lead to a 2–4% decrease in oil consumption and related greenhouse emissions (Pyper). These statistics clearly build a solid case for autonomous cars due to their low impact on the environment compared to regular cars.
  • Lastly, self-driving cars can lessen unproductive and stressful driving time. If one is not prone to motion sickness, the time spent driving to and from one’s destination can be utilized for other tasks. The average commute time for Americans, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is 25.4 minutes (WYNC); however major cities like New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco can see upward of 30 minutes each way (Siddiqui). Moreover, extreme commuters who spend more than one hour each way from home to work are growing more rapidly than before. With autonomous cars, productivity levels will increase as people can work, sleep, eat, or complete other tasks while the car is driving.

Random decisions are better than predetermined ones

  • Some people may argue that random human accidents are more justified than an algorithm that already predetermined the death of someone in a car crash. In addition, many ask who would hold responsibility for self-driving inflicted accidents. Would it be the responsibility of the driver? The car manufacturer? The engineer who developed the software? Some people believe that the situation is too complex, and people should just allow accidents to naturally happen. Others believe it is unethical for people to make decisions on another person’s life and favor random accidents.
  • Guiseppe Contissa from the University of Bologna explored what would happen if the control and responsibility for self-driving cars were given back to the driver (Beall). The team designed dial that will allow drivers to switch a car’s set to one of three driving options: full altruistic, full egoist, or impartial. This feature allows the driver to give value to what he or she is worth, relative to others. The car will take the knowledge provided by the driver and execute the pre-determined action. However, the intended purpose to find a solution for self-driving cars opened even larger ethical issues. What if everyone turned the knob to full egoist mode? What if people turned the knob to impartial: who would be responsible then? Contissa’s attempt at a resolution gave people some control over their self-driving cars again, but only to an extent, leaving major ethical questions still unresolved. Since there is no clear solution, many will argue that random and unplanned accidents are more ethical than the predetermined algorithm of autonomous cars.

We should not allow companies, government, and policymakers to control our destiny

  • People may also argue that it is unethical for someone other than themselves to control their destiny in a car accident. In the case of self-driving cars, engineers developed the technology based on their ethics. What they deemed right and wrong controls the autonomous car, and their decision influences the life of the driver, passengers, and bystanders. Policymakers and the government also attempt to set rules and regulations on self-driving cars, adding additional influence on drivers, passengers, and bystanders. Because this gives people the power to control other people’s lives, many are uncomfortable and believe self-driving cars are unethical. People believe this is unethical because they believe one should not be controlled by others.
  • Germany attempted to solve the ethical issues of self-driving cars with actual guidelines. The nation proposed that: “self-driving cars should always attempt to minimize human death and shouldn’t discriminate between individuals based on age, gender, or any factor. Human lives should also always be given priority over animals or property” (Nowak). Germany believes that self-driving cars should make ethical decisions on who to save or harm based on precedent rules set by the government. From a study published by Science, more than 75% of participants supported this utilitarian approach (Nowak). However, the other 25% did not feel strongly about the government intervening with their lives. They do not believe that the government has the right to place a value on life. Opponents of the self-driving car have valid reasons against it as people have differing views on ethics.

Data storage and hackers pose a threat to society

  • For self-driving cars to run efficiently, a massive amount of data must be collected through the car’s sensors. While driving, autonomous cars continuously store data about their surroundings that allows them to learn and get smarter. This raises many security issues as self-driving cars hold large amounts of data including where the driver and passenger have been, driver communication when mobile phones are hooked, and conversations in the vehicle between drivers and passengers. People who are against autonomous cars believe it is unethical for self-driving cars to collect this kind of personal and sensitive information. Misuse of the data could be detrimental to a person’s identity, finances, and livelihood.
  • There is also a great fear that criminals will hack and command a car remotely. From the podcast, The Legal Impact of Autonomous Vehicles, Phil Yannella, a partner in Ballard Saphr’s Privacy & Data Security Group, states that the increased development of autonomous driving vehicles will also lead to the increased risk of hacking (Reuters). Yannella explains that self-driving cars have multiple connection points including the computer area network, brakes, drivetrain, connections between the car and manufacturer, connections between the car and other autonomous vehicles, and any wired public infrastructure. These connections can be hacked and if placed under the wrong hands can lead to serious damage. Due to the increased risk of self-driving cars, many believe that they are unethical to society.

The utilitarianism of autonomous cars has been both vigorously defended and attacked. When humans get into the driver’s seat of a car, positive law states that they take full responsibility for their actions. When it comes to self-driving cars, there is a clear gray area: is the driver responsible for any harm to innocent bystanders who get hurt from self-driving cars? Or is the self-driving car responsible for harm to innocent bystanders? Human drivers and self-driving cars who get into accidents must make split-second moral choices on whether to protect themselves or others. Because of the grey area, there have been many debates on whether self-driving cars are ethical.

Opponents of the self-driving cars have valid reasons. Some people believe that car accident should happen naturally versus predetermined results decided by algorithms months to years in advance. Some people also believe that it is unethical for other people to decide one’s destiny. By handing the driving experience to autonomous cars, drivers lose control of their destiny. The amount of data collected and stored raises additional concern for some people. People are afraid that hackers will not only steal their private data but can also cause major harm to society. They believe it is the social and corporate responsibility for companies, governments, and policymakers to protect innocent bystanders from harm.

To me, the positives outweigh the negatives for autonomous cars. First, self-driving cars are created by some of the most innovative and educated people of today’s society. The intent of the inventors is to create a better society for drivers and the planet. In addition, self-driving cars have proven to be significantly safer than having an actual driver; this has been shown by numerous studies and data collected from them. In the long run, autonomous cars will increase efficiency and productivity for people around the world. For more people to feel at ease with self-driving cars, companies, and self-driving car owners should understand they are responsible for the safety of all stakeholders. Risk management techniques can be used to quantify probabilistic risk in a way that is transparent and flexible. To create ethical vehicles, developers should continue to learn from past experiences in risk management and morally challenging situations.

Allowing self-driving cars will satisfy the expectations and values of self-driving car enthusiasts, drivers, and companies who produce these cars. As science and technology advances, it is inevitable that more inventions will be developed. In the case of the self-driving car, this creates both opportunity and harm. Humans will need to create tools, such as rules and regulations, to protect themselves. As more laws and regulations develop regarding autonomous cars, these will work to balance both the ethics and economics of self-driving cars.

Beall, A. (October 18, 2017). The car you can program to sacrifice you in crash. New Scientist. Retrieved from Nexis Uni.

Bohn, D. (2016, October 20). Elon Musk: Negative media coverage of autonomous vehicles could be ‘killing people’. Retrieved from

Brown, D. (2018, July 04). How self-driving car or adaptive cruise control could ease traffic jams. Retrieved from

(Video) The Ethics and Safety of Driverless Cars with Neil deGrasse Tyson & Malcolm Gladwell

Commute Times in Your Area | WNYC. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Eadicicco, L. (2014, October 23). Here’s Why You Probably Won’t Get Hired At Google. Retrieved from

Isidore, C. (2018, March 21). Self-driving cars are already really safe. Retrieved from

Keogh, S. (2016, Sep 20). The dangers of ‘self-driving’ car hype. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from

McMahon, J. (2017, April 19). Big Fuel Savings From Autonomous Vehicles. Retrieved from

Nelson, G. (July 13, 2015). Self-driving cars make ethical choices. Automotive News Print Version. Retrieved from Nexis Uni.

Nowak, P. (2018, February 02). The ethical dilemmas of self-driving cars. Retrieved from

Privacy concerns and self-driving cars: Are we ready for autonomous vehicles? (2018, February 15). Retrieved from

Pyper, J. (2014, September 15). Self-Driving Cars Could Cut Greenhouse Gas Pollution. Retrieved from

Ramsey, M. (2015, March 05). Self-Driving Cars Could Cut Down on Accidents, Study Says. Retrieved from

Siddiqui, F. (2018, September 17). Americans’ commutes keep getting longer, according to survey data. Retrieved from

Trappl, R. (n.d.). Ethical Systems for Self-Driving Cars: An Introduction. Applied Artificial Intelligence, 30(8), 745–747.


Can self-driving cars make ethical decisions? ›

Although, like humans, they aren't able to make a moral decision before an unavoidable accident. But self-driving cars will be safer than human drivers, as they're more attentive, can react quicker and will use braking system capabilities to the full in an accident scenario.

Who should be responsible for the ethics of the AI in self-driving cars? ›

Usually, this would be the person driving the car. However, one of the biggest misconceptions about AI is that these algorithms can think for themselves, which is not (yet) the case.

What does Elon Musk say about self-driving cars? ›

The updated version would allow vehicles to drive on their own, no human occupant required. Elon Musk's Tesla is facing a massive recall from German regulators. Musk has previously stated that autonomous vehicles will be safer than cars with human drivers.

What are some ethical issue? ›

Racial discrimination, sexual harassment, wage inequality – are all costly ethical issues that employers and employees encounter on a daily basis across the country.

What are considered ethical issues? ›

The most commonly experienced ethical issues include discrimination, harassment, unethical accounting, technological abuse, data privacy, health and safety, and favoritism and nepotism. Most of these concerns are experienced in workplaces.

Why does the ethical dilemma matters in autonomous cars? ›

At its core, the main ethical conflict regarding autonomous vehicles is between the interests of the passenger (arriving quickly, cheaply, and safely at their destination) and those of the community as a whole (making sure roads are safe for everyone using them) [4].

What social issues are raised by self-driving car technology? ›

Another major social roadblock to the transition of driverless vehicles is public acceptance. While many people are excited by the prospect and potential of driverless vehicles, there are many others who fear the technology, owing to concerns such as safety, security, privacy and job losses13.

What is ethics in artificial intelligence? ›

What are ethics in AI? AI ethics is a system of moral principles and techniques intended to inform the development and responsible use of artificial intelligence technology. As AI has become integral to products and services, organizations are starting to develop AI codes of ethics.

What's an example of ethical dilemma? ›

Some examples of ethical dilemma include: Taking credit for others' work. Offering a client a worse product for your own profit. Utilizing inside knowledge for your own profit.

How would a self-driving car that followed utilitarian ethics behave? ›

If engineers programmed self-driving cars to follow a utilitarian standard of saving the maximum number of statistical lives, then the distribution of risk is applied equally to everyone in the society. There is no party who has a disproportionate amount of risk due to third party factors such as age or gender.

Are self-driving cars really safe? ›

Automated vehicles' potential to save lives and reduce injuries is rooted in one critical and tragic fact: 94% of serious crashes are due to human error.
Are Self-Driving Cars Really Safer Than Human Drivers?
Delivery RobotsNeolix
Shuttles and BusesCoast Autonomous
TaxisBaidu Apollo
Consumer vehiclesBMW
21 more columns
13 Jun 2021

Are Tesla's fully self-driving? ›

While Tesla has added some functionality, Full Self Driving still requires driver supervision at all times, putting it firmly at Level 2 on the SAE autonomy, where Level 5 represents fully autonomous driving. 2022 Tesla lineup (Courtesy of Tesla, Inc.)

Why are self-driving cars so difficult? ›

Autonomous vehicles must navigate a highly complex world of various roadways, street signs, pedestrians, other vehicles, buildings, and more. Humans are Unpredictable. These vehicles need to not only understand their driver, but also be able to predict human behavior, which as we know can be relatively unpredictable.


1. The Ethics of Self Driving Cars
(Wes Cecil)
2. Ethics in Autonomous Cars | Josh Pachter | TEDxUniversityofRochester
(TEDx Talks)
3. The Complicated Ethics Of Self-Driving Cars | Think | NBC News
(NBC News)
4. The trolley problem and ethics of driverless cars - Newsnight
(BBC Newsnight)
5. What moral decisions should driverless cars make? | Iyad Rahwan
6. Can You Teach Ethics to a Self-Driving Car?
(NOVA PBS Official)
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