Professor Discusses Ethics of Self-Driving Vehicles

by C. GARRETT KEIDEL, Asst. Editor

Autonomous vehicles and autonomous technology are seeing a growing presence on American roads. With this comes major questions involving the ethics in how the vehicles will react in a  variety of situations.

Should the vehicle take action to protect its occupants at all costs, even if that means putting others and their lives at risk? Is it even possible for a vehicle to analyze the situation and make a decision? These questions and many others are being studied by a faculty member here at Manhattan College.

Heidi Furey, Ph.D., is in her first year here that the college as an assistant professor of philosophy. Before her time here at MC, she worked at the University of Massachusetts: Lowell. When it comes to the relationship between philosophy and ethics, she had this to say.

“Philosophy pertains to every area of life and ethics are deeply connected,” said Furey. “Ethics is a sub-branch of philosophy that investigates, among other things, what we ‘ought’ to do. This can be distinct from what we do in fact do, or what we want to do. Philosophy itself comes up in pretty much any area that you can study, from language to science… And in any of the areas philosophers study, ethical questions also arise… So anyone doing ethics is doing philosophy. And many people doing philosophy also end up investigating ethical questions at some point.”

She works on this project with other assistant professors who are at the University of Massachusetts: Nicholas Evans and Yuanchang Xie, along with Ryan Jenkins from California Polytechnical University, and Rocco Casagrande from Gryphon Scientific. Together, they received a $556,650 grant to conduct the three year long project.

“I became interested in the ethics of autonomous vehicles a few years ago when I was teaching engineering ethics at the University of Massachusetts: Lowell. At first I was just looking for a good issue to “hook” engineering and computer science students into philosophy—to get them to see that some of the (seemingly) crazy abstract things philosophers care about are actually relevant to real world problems in science and engineering,” said Furey. “Of course, when I was teaching the topic, I got very interested in it myself…The more I started investigating the topic, the more I felt like it was a really important problem. I also became convinced that philosophers should be working with engineers and computer scientists to try to make progress on the issue.”

The long term goal for Furey and her team is to develop ways to encode ethical-decision making into such vehicles. There are two main approaches that they’re using to accomplish this goal. The first is understanding what’s possible and used now in coding for autonomous vehicles. This is then used to create code that allows the vehicle to react in many ways that lower the possible risks overall when making decisions.

Then in the second approach, they take the developed code and put it through algorithms that can simulate traffic conditions, change, and risk. Based off of this data, it’s then possible to model what the public healths benefits are or could be.

When it comes to the future of Autonomous Vehicles and the Ethics of the code involved, Furey sees a possibility for growing interest.

“There is a lot of interest in this topic right now and people around the country are starting up investigations of the topic,” said Furey. However, I don’t know of any other studies that are doing the exact thing that we are, though hopefully there will be more soon!”

CORRECTION (February, 27 9:20 a.m. EDT): An earlier version of this article misspelled Rocco Casagrande’s last name. It has been corrected.

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The Quadrangle, founded in 1924, is the student-run newspaper of Manhattan College.
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