As driverless cars prepare to enter the roadway, regulators are closely considering the implications of how software is programmed. When faced with an imminent risk of collision or injury, how will the software decide which course of action to take? How will the software weigh the impact on different people, animals, and property? Dashboard Insights has been raising these questions since 2014, and now, the parameters are beginning to take shape in other countries.

In June, the ethics commission of the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure released guidelines (German language guidelines) for self-driving vehicles (English language summary). At the time, German Federal Minister Dobrint touted the “pioneering” work as the “first guidelines in the world for automated driving” addressing these ethical issues.

Now, the Ministry has announced it will implement those guidelines.

So what do the ethical rules require? There are 20 guidelines, with key portions summarized below:

  • Driverless car technology must “prevent accidents wherever this is practically possible.”
  • The protection of human life is the foremost priority. The systems “must be programmed to accept damage to animals or property in a conflict if this means that personal injury can be prevented.”
  • Programs cannot weigh the value of one human life over another in ways that are “ethically questionable”. Any distinction based on “age, gender, physical or mental constitution” is prohibited.
  • The public sector must license and monitor the software.
  • Laws must reflect the transition of accountability from the motorist to the manufacturers and operators of the technology.

These guidelines address thorny and complicated dilemmas, and in some instances raise more questions than answers (such as how and when to reflect the transition of accountability). The German regulations on driverless cars will impact the entire industry, as Germany is the top automotive market in Europe, and one in every five cars worldwide carries a German brand. We will continue to monitor whether other countries follow suit.