‘The Nut Behind the Wheel’ to ‘Moral Machines:’ A Brief History of Auto Safety

By Neil Malhotra, Ken Shotts, Sheila Melvin
2014 | Case No. ETH4 | Length 12 pgs.

Driverless cars – once the stuff of science fiction – are fast becoming reality. Indeed, some automotive companies have said they expect to sell autonomous vehicles to the public by 2020. The advent of such self-driving vehicles raises numerous ethical and legal questions that will need to be addressed before such cars can hit the road in significant numbers. This case traces the history and evolution of auto safety in the United States, beginning with the very first automotive-related fatality on September 13, 1899 and ending with a coming era in which, some predict, humans will be banned from driving their own vehicles and machines will be obliged to have ethical systems.

Learning Objective

1. To analyze how social institutions like product liability affect alignment between profit incentives and societal well-being. 2. To analyze conflicts between two different ethical systems: utilitarian consequentialism and individual rights, as embodied by the “trolley problem”, which arises when autonomous vehicles make life-and-death decisions. 3. To highlight the role of gut instincts in ethical reasoning, e.g., for people who believe autonomous vehicles are ethically troubling. 4. To learn about the hurdles that must be overcome to achieve public and governmental acceptance of an innovative technology.
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