There is an old thought experiment called the Trolley Problem that’s become central to the development of autonomous cars. In the context of self-driving cars, it sets up a scenario where an autonomously-operated vehicle approaches, say, a nun herding a group of orphans from a burning hospital. There is no time to stop or room to maneuver around the group. The car must therefore choose whether to run over the nuns and orphans, likely killing them, or swerve into the burning building, likely killing the passengers.
What should the car do?
On October 7th, Christoph von Hugo, manager of driver assistance safety systems at Mercedes-Benz, inadvertently became the first significant player at a car manufacturer to take a position on the Trolley Problem. According to von Hugo, the Self-Driving Car should run over the nun and the children.
Here’s his statement from the Paris Auto Show, as quoted in Car and Driver:
“If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car. If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.”
To be clear, this is not Mercedes’s official position on the Trolley Problem.