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Personal ethical settings for driverless cars and the utility paradox: An ethical analysis of public attitudes in UK and Japan

Takaguchi, K., Kappes, A. ORCID: 0000-0003-0867-6630, Yearsley, J. M. , Sawai, T., Wilkinson, D. J. C. & Savulescu, J. (2022). Personal ethical settings for driverless cars and the utility paradox: An ethical analysis of public attitudes in UK and Japan. PLoS One, 17(11), e0275812. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0275812


Driverless cars are predicted to dramatically reduce collisions and casualties on the roads. However, there has been controversy about how they should be programmed to respond in the event of an unavoidable collision. Should they aim to save the most lives, prioritise the lives of pedestrians, or occupants of the vehicle? Some have argued that driverless cars should all be programmed to minimise total casualties. While this would appear to have wide international public support, previous work has also suggested regional variation and public reluctance to purchase driverless cars with such a mandated ethical setting. The possibility that algorithms designed to minimise collision fatalities would lead to reduced consumer uptake of driverless cars and thereby to higher overall road deaths, represents a potential "utility paradox". To investigate this paradox further, we examined the views of the general public about driverless cars in two online surveys in the UK and Japan, examining the influence of choice of a "personal ethical setting" as well as of framing on hypothetical purchase decisions. The personal ethical setting would allow respondents to choose between a programme which would save the most lives, save occupants or save pedestrians. We found striking differences between UK and Japanese respondents. While a majority of UK respondents wished to buy driverless cars that prioritise the most lives or their family members' lives, Japanese survey participants preferred to save pedestrians. We observed reduced willingness to purchase driverless cars with a mandated ethical setting (compared to offering choice) in both countries. It appears that the public values relevant to programming of driverless cars differ between UK and Japan. The highest uptake of driverless cars in both countries can be achieved by providing a personal ethical setting. Since uptake of driverless cars (rather than specific algorithm used) is potentially the biggest factor in reducing in traffic related accidents, providing some choice of ethical settings may be optimal for driverless cars according to a range of plausible ethical theories.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: Copyright: © 2022 Takaguchi et al. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
Publisher Keywords: Humans; Automobiles; Japan; Accidents, Traffic; Ethical Analysis; Attitude; United Kingdom
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BJ Ethics
T Technology > T Technology (General)
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
Text - Published Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution.

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