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Mercedes-Benz chooses drivers in self-driving car safety debate

Drivers lives more important in Mercedes safety debate while Theresa May gives Nissan autonomous vehicles freedom of UK roads and MK sees the country's first self-driving car test...

Mercedes-Benz self-driving cars will save the life of the car driver and their passengers even if that means sacrificing pedestrians or other road users like cyclists, says a Mercedes-Benz executive.

Comments published last week in automotive magazine Car and Driver from executive Christoph von Hugo state that "if you know you can save at least one person, at least save that one. 

“Save the one in the car. If all you know for sure is that one death can be prevented, then that’s your first priority.”

The firm's stance is sure to draw criticism from cycling groups, vulnerable road users andthe wider population who are already apprehensive about the idea of robotic cars taking to the streets.

The ethical conversation about whether or not the car's 'driver' is the right one to be saved stems from a thought experiment called the Trolley Problem.

The Trolley Problem asks a human participant whether they would intefere with an out-of-control trolley hurteling down a track towards a crowd by diverting it to a less-crowded area. 

> Read more: Google defends driverless car project after collision

It's a question that has faced philosophers for decades, and has drawn mixed responses from participating groups. Today, though it takes on a legitimate logistical issue as steps into the world of artificial intelligence and robotics bring the challenges of integrating these technologies into society to the fore.

In such a divisive field, it's unlikely that the majority of road users will agree with Mercedes's decision, however von Hugo says that there's an ethical imperative to save the lives you know you can save.

“You could sacrifice the car. You could, but then the people you’ve saved initially, you don’t know what happens to them after that. So you save the ones you know you can save.” 

In the wake of those comments from Mercedes, the first autonomous vehicle test on UK streets took place in Milton Keynes and Prime Minister Theresa May agreed to allow Nissan the freedom of the country's roads to test its autonomous vehicles.

> Read more: Rio medallists urge Theresa May to invest in everyday cycling

May's agreement with Nissan is speculated to be a move to assure the Japanese car manufacturer that Britain is still the right place for it to base its European manufacturing branch, despite fears that the country's exit of the European Union will damage the firm's profitability.

The Times reported that Nissan is set to make a decision in the next few weeks as to whether it will build its newest Qashqai sports utility vehicle in Sunderland, or whether they will move the operation to continent.

Sunderland's Nissan factory is the biggest of its kind in Britain and allegedly represents the car maker’s most productive plant; 80% of the plant's output is supposedly exported.

The factory also stands as the biggest employer on Wearside.

A little further down the country in Milton Keynes autonomous vehicles were also making headlines this week.

The LUTZ Pathfinder, which is a two-seater vehicles built by not-for-profit research organisation Transport Systems Catapult (TSC), went for a 2km drive around pedestrianised areas of the Buckinghamshire town.

TSC said that the trial had been a success and that the car reacted to obstacles - like pedestrians, cyclists, and road furniture - as expected and opened the door to further tests in the town. 

The movements within the UK towards a future of self-driving cars on the country's roads certainly puts the position of Mercedes-Benz's ethical team into imminent perspective.

Is this driver-first perspective the right one for Mercedes to be taking? Should the car save the driver first or should vulnerable road users take priority?

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