UK parliamentarians have signalled that they will not be expecting developers of driverless vehicle systems to explicitly consider the infamous Trolley Problem in the design of their decision-making software – but the government may later decide to implement something similar.
Clive Efford, the Labour MP for Eltham, put down what he later described as a “probing amendment” to the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill, which is currently making its way through Parliament. Efford’s amendment would have meant the Department for Transport would have to approve each and every autonomous vehicle software stack before it could be used in vehicles driven on public roads in the UK.
Key to Efford’s amendment were “moral judgements” to be made by software, which he clarified after following the bill’s public committee hearing, was explicitly intended to raise the Trolley Problem (in simple terms, who should a driverless car choose to harm if a crash is inevitable?)
Although Efford’s proposed clause was withdrawn by mutual agreement, the question is a thorny one that has long vexed ethicists and now bothers vehicle manufacturers.
MPs also pondered what happens if driverless vehicles in a convoy – (a popular idea especially for lorries to make more efficient use of motorways) – were to crash.
“The assumption in this bill is insurance companies will pay out.” Efford told the committee. “We may be creating a complication where the neither insured party, or no party in fact, gets paid for some time while these complications get sorted out.”
John Hayes, Minister of State at the Department for Transport, responded for the government: “We need discussions with the insurance industry before the addition of autonomous vehicles in platooning situations” to the bill.
The vexed topic of data sharing also came up, this time in the context of granting access to driverless car data in the event of an accident. Karl Turner MP, Labour’s shadow transport minister, said: “Data is a very valuable source for the insurer and other interested parties. The information gathered by these vehicles might be sensitive. Information that needs to be kept private could be damaging and abused in the wrong hands. The government should ensure the data is secure, private and only used by [the specified] other parties.”
Conservative MP Oliver Letwin rejoined: “Does my honourable friend agree with me that without this clause the data will still be obtainable if one of the parties sought a court order to obtain it? Does he also agree with me that there’d be a cost for obtaining this information? Does he agree the requester should pay even if later reimbursed?” he added.
“I’d go further and say there’s a balance to be struck between the collection of this data… and the privacy of drivers,” commented Hayes, who added that the government is very interested in this area but wants to ponder it further before including it in legislation.
The Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill will now proceed to its third reading before the House of Commons, and following that will be debated in the House of Lords.