Last week Mercedes got a lot of attention—and not necessarily the good kind—after one of its managers said that in the future, the automaker’s self-driving cars would prioritize the safety of occupants over pedestrians. Now Mercedes is walking that back, and hard. Apparently doing so would be unethical, unacceptable, and also illegal.
We got our information about Mercedes’ official stance on how their self-driving cars would handle the infamous Trolley Problem (In the event of an imminent crash, who does your car protect: you, the occupant, or a pedestrian?) from an interview that Christian von Hugo, Mercedes’ Manager Driver Assistance Systems, Active Safety & Ratings, gave with Car and Driver at the recent Paris Motor Show.
All of Mercedes-Benz’s future Level 4 and Level 5 autonomous cars will prioritize saving the people they carry, according to Christoph von Hugo, the automaker’s manager of driver assistance systems and active safety.
“If you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. Save the one in the car,” Hugo said in an interview at the Paris auto show. “If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.”
Well, Mercedes just emailed Jalopnik to say that this was a misquote, and that some of von Hugo’s words were omitted.
What this official Mercedes project manager said in the interview, moreover, does not reflect Mercedes’ official corporate stance on self-driving car policy.
A Mercedes spokesman, however, was happy to provide it:
Following is the official statement from Daimler AG in Stuttgart:
· For Daimler it is clear that neither programmers nor automated systems are entitled to weigh the value of human lives.
· Our development work focuses on completely avoiding dilemma situation by, for example, implementing a risk-avoiding operating strategy in our vehicles.
· There is no instance in which we’ve made a decision in favor of vehicle occupants. We continue to adhere to the principle of providing the highest possible level of safety for all road users.
· To make a decision in favor of one person and thus against another is not legally permissible in Germany. There are similar laws in other countries as well.
· To clarify these issues of law and ethics in the long term will require broad international discourse. This is the only way to build a comprehensive consensus and promote acceptance for the results.
· As manufacturers we will implement both the respective legal framework and what is deemed to be socially acceptable.
· A statement by Daimler on this topic has been quoted incorrectly.
Let me reiterate the question of the Trolley Problem just to explain why carmakers really don’t want to address it. The Trolley Problem imagines an imminent crash in which the car must choose between crumpling into some immovable object, killings its occupant(s), or saving its occupant(s) and crumpling into a bunch of pedestrians instead.
In other words, who is a robot car responsible for saving: its occupants or pedestrians?
If Mercedes says its cars would save its occupants, it’s going to sound almost monstrous, and part of that is because of the class issues involved with being a high-end expensive luxury brand. Most of us don’t own Mercedes Benzes, and most Mercedes Benz owners are rich people. You have the image of ordinary, or at least less-wealthy, people getting run down by a fancy expensive car. Again, this is not great publicity.
Alternatively, if Mercedes say their cars would save the pedestrians, now it’s telling you, a potential buyer, that your Mercedes would kill you if it felt it needed to save some random assholes. Who’s going to buy a car that would not act to save their life? Mercedes can’t win.
The only thing to do is to sidestep the question entirely, which is exactly what von Hugo later said in his Car and Driver interview:
“We believe this ethical question won’t be as relevant as people believe today. It will occur much less often,” Hugo said. “There are situations that today’s driver can’t handle, that—from the physical standpoint—we can’t prevent today and automated vehicles can’t prevent, either. [The self-driving car] will just be far better than the average [human] driver.
“This moral question of whom to save: 99 percent of our engineering work is to prevent these situations from happening at all. We are working so our cars don’t drive into situations where that could happen and [will] drive away from potential situations where those decisions have to be made.”
In short, stop worrying about the Trolley Problem and focus on other facets of driverless cars, namely, that they will be unbelievably safer than current cars and they will be able to drive you home when you’re drunk.
I reached out to Car and Driver and they have not yet been notified that anything was amiss. I will update the story if we get more information or a full transcript of the interview.