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Posted by on Jul 27, 2016 in Publications |

Will The Courts Finally Answer The Trolley Problem?

Will The Courts Finally Answer The Trolley Problem?

The Trolley Problem

If you’ve taken a Philosophy 101 class, you might be familiar with a thought experiment known as the Trolley Problem. As the hypothetical goes, a trolley is heading down a hill and on the tracks ahead of it five people are tied down and cannot move. If you do nothing, the trolley can’t stop in time and will kill those people. Fortunately, however, there is a switch right next to you that allows you to divert the trolley onto another track. Unfortunately, there is a single person tied on that track.

Do you do nothing and allow five people to die or do you pull the switch and kill one person? Does it change the equation if the five people are convicted serial killers and the one person is a baby? What if the five people are complete strangers and the one person is your mother?

The Trolley Problem…Meets The Self-Driving Car

With me so far? Okay, now replace trolley with self-driving car, the one person with a pedestrian jaywalking across the street, and the five people with a father who gets distracted by his kids and drives his fully-occupied family van through a red light at full speed. Then ask yourself this: if it has to choose between hitting one or the other, what should the self-driving car do – does it hit the fully-occupied van to avoid the pedestrian or hit the single pedestrian to avoid the van?

This issue recently surfaced in headlines again in response to research being performed at MIT (you can go to if you want to try it out yourself) with respect to how the public believes a self-driving car should react to various situations in which the car must solve the Trolley Problem under different circumstances. What wasn’t really discussed, however, are the legal ramifications of car manufacturers actually answering the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem…Goes On Trial

People generally don’t go around solving the Trolley Problem in real life. It surfaces in philosophy classes and academic discussions as a thought experiment, but it’s not something that most people really work out an answer to ahead of time. Car manufacturers, however, won’t have that luxury.

Car manufacturers will have to not only answer difficult ethical questions like the Trolley Problem, but will then be programming their cars to act according to those answers (we’re going to leave the subject of self-aware, self-thinking cars for another day). And no matter how the car manufacturers decide, the one person or the five people, the end result will be the same – a car will have made the decision kill or injure people based on its programming. There is no doubt that when this happens (and this is a when, not an if) the car manufacturer will end up the target of a lawsuit.

And the lawsuit goes something like this – Joe’s car is driving him home from a late night at work. At the same time, however, a group of bored teenagers decide it would be fun to run across the freeway. As fate would have it, the teenagers run out onto the freeway right as Joe’s car approaches that very same spot in the freeway. The car, having not detected the teenagers until the last second because they were previously obscured by some bushes along the side of the freeway, follows its programming to always preserve multiple lives over a single life and swerves to avoid them, deliberately sending itself and Joe into a center divider, turning Joe into a paraplegic.

Joe sues the car manufacturer. Unlike a standard auto accident case, the facts of the accident will be undisputed – there will be no doubt as to what the “driver” decided to do, when it decided to do it, and why it made that decision, as all of this will be stored in the car’s black box. As a result, what will be on trial is simply this: were the ethical guidelines and decisions programmed into the car reasonable? That is, after having spent months pondering this scenario, was it reasonable for the car manufacturer to arrive at the decision to program its car to risk Joe’s safety to save the teenagers. In other words, what will be on trial is whether the car manufacturer answered the Trolley Problem correctly.

And this is the difficult aspect of such a case – the jury won’t be rendering a verdict on how the accident happened but will instead be rendering a verdict on the ethical system that caused the accident. Or, put differently, what the jury and the court will effectively be doing is making a legal determination as to which of two valid, defensible ethical choices are legally acceptable. Either way, it looks like we’ll finally have an answer to the Trolley Problem.


If you’re involved in a lawsuit or risk management and have any questions regarding current or potential legal issues, we would urge you to contact an attorney as soon as possible to obtain advice, guidance and representation. At Baker, Keener & Nahra, we have the experience, skill, and drive to get the best possible results for our clients, no matter the size of the case or the scope of the problem. So if we can be of any assistance to you, please contact us and let us know how we can help.