German federal government adopts an action plan on automated driving

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For a while we’ve been debating the ethics of algorithms, especially in the context of autonomous vehicles: What should happen, when something goes wrong? Who/what does the robo car protect? Who’s liable for damage if a crash occurs?

Germany, which has a strategy in place to become not just a world-leading manufacturer of autonomous vehicles but also a world-leading consumer market, just announced how to deal with these questions.

Based on the findings of an ethics commission, Germany’s federal government just adopted an action plan on automated driving (here quoted in full:

The Ethics Commission’s report comprises 20 propositions. The key elements are:

  • Automated and connected driving is an ethical imperative if the systems cause fewer accidents than human drivers (positive balance of risk).
  • Damage to property must take precedence over personal injury. In hazardous situations, the protection of human life must always have top priority.
  • In the event of unavoidable accident situations, any distinction between individuals based on personal features (age, gender, physical or mental constitution) is impermissible.
  • In every driving situation, it must be clearly regulated and apparent who is responsible for the driving task: the human or the computer.
  • It must be documented and stored who is driving (to resolve possible issues of liability, among other things).
  • Drivers must always be able to decide themselves whether their vehicle data are to be forwarded and used (data sovereignty).
  • The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure’s Ethics Commission comprised 14 academics and experts from the disciplines of ethics, law and technology. Among these were transport experts, legal experts, information scientists, engineers, philosophers, theologians, consumer protection representatives as well as representatives of associations and companies.

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Reading this, I have to say I’m relieved and impressed: These guidelines seem entirely reasonable, common sense, and practical. Especially the non-discrimination clause and the principle of data sovereignty is good to see included in this. Well done!

This bodes well for other areas where we haven’t seen this level of consideration from the German government yet, like smart cities and the super-set of #iot. I hope we’ll see similar findings and action plans in those areas soon, too.

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