Self-driving cars could be programmed to make ‘moral’ decisions and deice who gets hit in a collision, says leading lawyers.
Autonomous car technology is a matter of years away from being launched on British roads, but questions have been raised about it.
Cars in the future may be programmed to weigh up the value of individual lives, according to a report from the Faculty of Advocates.
The submission was part of a consultation between the Scottish Law Commission and the Law Commission of England and Wales, with a three-year review of laws for self-driving cars.
The report said: “Persons generally are entitled to expect that a self-driving vehicle will not collide with and injure them.
“However, in reality, the situation is much more nuanced.”
The Faculty of Advocates believes that owners of driverless cars will also be able to choose the morality of their car.
The report added: “The purchaser might be able to specify the ethical system with which the car is programmed… as well as specifying the paint colour and interior trim.”
Driverless cars bring with them a number of legal implications which could make laws tricky to write and enforce for the technology.
The system could be governed by automated programmes based on predictable algorithms but artificial intelligence experts are developing neural networks, which are systems that could make their own decisions.
Experts believe that new offences are likely to be necessary to cover the systems set up by companies to control driverless vehicles, and to hold them to account in the case of errors, malfunctions, and accidents.
The Faculty of Advocates suggested that it would be feasible for the value of individual lives to be judged by these systems.
Ethical questions about driverless cars have been raised before. For example, the ‘trolley problem’ which asks a person at the controls about a decision to make which will result in the fatality of at least one person.
There is a train cart heading for five people but if you pull the lever it switches to a track with just one person on it.
Variations ask whether it would make a difference if the single person was Albert Einstein and the five people were housebreakers. There are also questions about the person’s age and background etc.
However, it is incredibly unlikely that an autonomous car would have quite the level of information to separate certain groups of people or individuals.
But the report said that could change in a country like China, where the government is currently establishing a “social credit” score for its citizens.
It added: “We cannot conceive of any circumstances whatever where such a system could be regarded as acceptable in a free, open and democratic society.”
Caroline Drummond, commissioner at the SLC, said: “The advent of driverless cars raises an enormous range of aspects, such as jay-walking which we do fairly freely here but isn’t allowed in other countries.
“It won’t work with autonomous vehicles.”