How should autonomous cars drive? A preference for defaults in moral judgments under risk and uncertainty


Autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise to make traffic safer, but their societal integration poses ethical challenges. What behavior of AVs is morally acceptable in critical traffic situations when consequences are only probabilistically known (a situation of risk) or even unknown (a situation of uncertainty)? How do people retrospectively evaluate the behavior of an AV in situations in which a road user has been harmed? We addressed these questions in two empirical studies (N=1,638) that approximated the real-world conditions under which AVs operate by varying the degree of risk and uncertainty of the situation. In Experiment 1, subjects learned that an AV had to decide between staying in the lane or swerving. Each action could lead to a collision with another road user, with some known or unknown likelihood. Subjects’ decision preferences and moral judgments varied considerably with specified probabilities under risk, yet less so under uncertainty. The results suggest that staying in the lane and performing an emergency stop is considered a reasonable default, even when this action does not minimize expected loss. Experiment 2 demonstrated that if an AV collided with another road user, subjects’ retrospective evaluations of the default action were also more robust against unwanted outcome and hindsight effects than the alternative swerve maneuver. The findings highlight the importance of investigating moral judgments under risk and uncertainty in order to develop policies that are societally acceptable even under critical conditions.

Risk Analysis, 2, 295–314