CFP: Autonomous Vehicle Ethics: Beyond the Trolley Problem

Submission deadline: November 12, 2018

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Call for Contributors: Autonomous Vehicle Ethics: Beyond the Trolley Problem

We are calling for contributors to a new edited collection involving a range of disciplinary perspectives and approaches on the ethics of autonomous vehicles beyond the trolley problem. This collection will assemble rigorous academic work from talented philosophers, sociologists, economists, engineers, psychologists, urban planners, and social scientists that explores the ethical and social implications, very broadly construed, of autonomous vehicles. Oxford University Press has also expressed interest in the collection.

Autonomous vehicles (AVs) promise storied benefits and, as a result, are one of the most highly anticipated emerging technologies. Until now, much of the academic philosophical attention paid to autonomous vehicles was framed by the “trolley problem,” a moral dilemma that starkly illustrates conflicts between competing moral commitments. As the technology continues to advance at a rapid pace, academics have turned their attention away from the “trolley problem” to examine more concrete questions about the potential impacts of autonomous vehicles on society and human life.

There are still urgent questions waiting to be addressed, for example: how AVs might interact with human drivers in mixed or “hybrid” traffic environments; how AVs might reshape our urban landscapes; what unique security or privacy concerns are raised by AVs; whether long times spend in AVs might lead to new kinds of alienation or loneliness; how the benefits and burdens of this new technology will be distributed throughout society; and so on.

We are interested in rigorous academic work from moral and political philosophers, sociologists, economists, engineers, psychologists, urban planners, and social scientists that explores the ethical and social implications, very broadly construed, of autonomous vehicles.

Our anticipated timeline involves securing a contract by Fall 2018 and to have first drafts submitted by March 2018. An accompanying workshop will be held in Prague in the summer of 2019 where select contributors will have a chance to refine their work before the collection is finalized.

If you are interested in being considered for inclusion in this collection, please send a title, abstract (~200 words), biosketch, and contact information to Ryan Jenkins at by November 12, 2018. All submissions must be original and not under consideration elsewhere. Technical papers should not be too technical, as this volume is designed for a broad audience.

Feel free to distribute this call for contributions widely to colleagues who may be working on relevant topics.

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See below for a tentative structure of the book and suggested topics:

§1 Algorithms beyond the Trolley Problems

The literature around autonomous vehicle ethics remains dominated by discussion of the trolley problem. Manufacturers and engineers, however, have rarely taken this problem seriously as a proxy for the moral dimensions of autonomous vehicles. Still, there are significant open questions about how autonomous vehicles will make morally freighted decisions.

  • Simple actions like lane centering can expose pedestrians or cars to more or less risk. How will autonomous vehicles distribute this risk?

  • What data will be available to autonomous vehicles to make crash decisions? What data is morally acceptable for them to use to make decisions? For example, could age be used, not directly, but as a proxy for the predictability of a pedestrian’s behavior?

  • How do seemingly mundane problems like navigation conceal more deeply moral questions, for example, about funneling traffic through underprivileged communities or aging infrastructure?

§2 Autonomous Cars in the Urban Community

Much of the literature has extolled the benefits of a fully autonomous traffic environment, for example, by reducing congestion and pollution. However, for at least several decades, autonomous vehicles will be sharing the road with human-driven vehicles. What special problems emerge from this mixed or hybrid environment?

  • How do traffic laws and norms in different countries, for example, the US versus Europe, affect how drivers are likely to interact with autonomous vehicles?

  • How are human drivers liable to “abuse” autonomous vehicles, for example, by playing “chicken” with autonomous vehicles they know will swerve to avoid an accident? Such behavior has already been observed.

  • How can game-theoretic approaches inform solutions to driver abuse?

§3 Autonomous Cars and Social Justice

The benefits of new technologies often initially accrue to the best-off members of a community. We should expect autonomous vehicles to follow a similar pattern, since those companies most aggressively pursuing autonomous driving features — Tesla, Mercedes, Volvo, and so on — tend to manufacture more expensive cars. How can these effects be anticipated and mitigated?

  • What are realistic projects for unemployment caused by autonomous vehicles? How disruptive should we expect them to be for trucking, delivery, and driving professions?

  • Autonomous vehicles will certainly reduce traffic fatalities. However, this also reduces the number of organs available from donors. Moreover, many rural hospitals depend on revenue from organ donations. Do autonomous vehicles stand to create new burdens for rural communities in this way, or in other ways?

  • If individual autonomous ride-hailing becomes commonplace, will this erode enthusiasm for public transportation? Who stands to gain and lose from this hyper-individualization of mobility? How else might autonomous vehicles reshape the urban landscape?

  • How will the other benefits of autonomous vehicles be distributed, for example, freedom from congestion and pollution?

§4 Further Ethical Issues

Autonomous vehicles promise to dramatically reshape the landscape of communities and human interaction. In this final section, authors are given license to speculate about longer-term issues, while still remaining empirically and philosophically grounded, applying and extending lessons from emerging research in psychology and elsewhere.

  • How might the passengers of autonomous vehicles be adversely psychologically or existentially impacted? Might extended time in autonomous vehicles cause existential ennui, boredom, detachment, or loneliness? Might it exacerbate addiction to social media?

  • What lessons can we learn from the psychological literature on human-robot interaction? Should autonomous vehicles be anthropomorphized, and to what degree?

  • How can manufacturers best cultivate trust in autonomous vehicles such that, for example, parents are willing to send their children to school in a driverless car?

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