People hanging off a streetcar. Photo: Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The "trolley problem" sets up a quandary: whether to let a trolley stay the course and hit numerous people, or redirect it and hit just one person. Recently, researchers have designed similar thought experiments around AVs.

Why it matters: AVs are being taught to drive safely and avoid harm entirely, just as human drivers are. But media coverage of these experiments, which assume unrealistic expectations for AV technology and suggest that AVs really could face such choices, may be contributing to public distrust in AVs.

What’s happening: In a recent MIT study, thousands of participants were asked whether an AV should kill a driver or a pedestrian, a homeless man or an executive, and so on, sorting people into categories as specific as male athlete, female doctor, small child, or baby in a stroller.

  • Participants' choices were assembled into a preference scale, ranking who is most preferable to spare or kill.
  • This study and earlier research have been widely publicized as capturing essential ethical insights that should be built into AVs.

The National Science Foundation, meanwhile, funded a group of philosophers working on computer modeling of how AVs could respond to different scenarios, depending on their ethical coding.

Between the lines:

  • There is no evidence that human drivers encounter instant decisions between two fatal outcomes with no alternative options. Programming AVs to anticipate such scenarios would not improve safety.
  • "Driverless dilemmas" mischaracterize AV capabilities. It's unlikely an AV could detect personal details, let alone a person's profession. Instead, AVs are being taught to track everything around them, and swerve or slow down to avoid hitting anyone.
  • Publicity of this research could be contributing to public distrust of AVs. It suggests that AVs will be unrealistically influenced by the ethics of their developers.

Yes, but: While AVs are not likely to face forced-choice ethical dilemmas, they may be taught to prioritize detecting and avoiding vulnerable road users, like pedestrians, over stationary objects, like parked cars.

  • In that sense, ethical choices would factor into programming, but in a context that aligns with how people are taught to drive in order to avoid harm.

Sam Anthony is co-founder and CTO of Perceptive Automata. Julian De Freitas is a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University.

Go deeper: Read the full paper responding to driverless dilemmas.

Go deeper

Updated 7 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 7 p.m. ET: 12,859,834 — Total deaths: 567,123 — Total recoveries — 7,062,085Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 7 p.m. ET: 3,297,501— Total deaths: 135,155 — Total recoveries: 1,006,326 — Total tested: 40,282,176Map.
  3. States: Florida smashes single-day record for new coronavirus cases with over 15,000 — NYC reports zero coronavirus deaths for first time since pandemic hit.
  4. Public health: Ex-FDA chief projects "apex" of South's coronavirus curve in 2-3 weeks — Coronavirus testing czar: Lockdowns in hotspots "should be on the table"
  5. Education: Betsy DeVos says schools that don't reopen shouldn't get federal funds — Pelosi accuses Trump of "messing with the health of our children."

Scoop: How the White House is trying to trap leakers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's chief of staff, Mark Meadows, has told several White House staffers he's fed specific nuggets of information to suspected leakers to see if they pass them on to reporters — a trap that would confirm his suspicions. "Meadows told me he was doing that," said one former White House official. "I don't know if it ever worked."

Why it matters: This hunt for leakers has put some White House staffers on edge, with multiple officials telling Axios that Meadows has been unusually vocal about his tactics. So far, he's caught only one person, for a minor leak.

11 GOP congressional nominees support QAnon conspiracy

Lauren Boebert posing in her restaurant in Rifle, Colorado, on April 24. Photo: Emily Kask/AFP

At least 11 Republican congressional nominees have publicly supported or defended the QAnon conspiracy theory movement or some of its tenets — and more aligned with the movement may still find a way onto ballots this year.

Why it matters: Their progress shows how a fringe online forum built on unsubstantiated claims and flagged as a threat by the FBI is seeking a foothold in the U.S. political mainstream.