Distributive justice as an ethical principle for autonomous vehicle behavior beyond hazard scenarios

Ethics and Information Technology 21 (3):227-239 (2019)
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Through modern driver assistant systems, algorithmic decisions already have a significant impact on the behavior of vehicles in everyday traffic. This will become even more prominent in the near future considering the development of autonomous driving functionality. The need to consider ethical principles in the design of such systems is generally acknowledged. However, scope, principles and strategies for their implementations are not yet clear. Most of the current discussions concentrate on situations of unavoidable crashes in which the life of human beings is existentially affected. In this paper, we argue that ethical considerations should be mandatory for any algorithmic decision of autonomous vehicles, instead of a limitation to hazard situations. Such an ethically aligned behavior is relevant because autonomous vehicles, like any other traffic participants, operate in a shared public space, where every behavioral decision impacts the operational possibilities of others. These possibilities concern the fulfillment of a road-user’s safety, utility and comfort needs. We propose that, to operate ethically in such space, an autonomous vehicle will have to take its behavior decisions according to a just distribution of operational possibilities among all traffic participants. Using an application on a partially-autonomous prototype vehicle, we describe how to apply and implement concepts of distributive justice to the driving environment and demonstrate the impact on its behavior in comparison to an advanced but egoistic decision maker.

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