A study on driverless-car ethics offers a troubling look into our values

By Caroline Lester

The first time Azim Shariff met Iyad Rahwan—the first real time, after communicating with him by phone and e-mail—was in a driverless car. It was November, 2012, and Rahwan, a thirty-four-year-old professor of computing and information science, was researching artificial intelligence at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a university in Abu Dhabi. He was eager to explore how concepts within psychology—including social networks and collective reasoning—might inform machine learning, but there were few psychologists working in the U.A.E. Shariff, a thirty-one-year-old with wild hair and expressive eyebrows, was teaching psychology at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi; he guesses that he was one of four research psychologists in the region at the time, an estimate that Rahwan told me “doesn’t sound like an exaggeration.” Rahwan cold-e-mailed Shariff and invited him to visit his research group.

The lab was situated in Masdar City, an experimental planned community in the heart of Abu Dhabi. The city runs entirely on renewable energy and prohibits the use of gas-powered vehicles. Instead, residents travel by “personal rapid transit”—a system of small, driverless cars that snake around the streets on magnetized paths. Rahwan waited for Shariff in a parking lot near the city limits, where commuters transfer from gas-powered cars to the self-driving pods. The cars function more like trains than like true autonomous vehicles, or A.V.s; they don’t deviate from set paths and make almost no decisions on their own. But, in 2012, when A.V.s were almost entirely theoretical, whirring around in a car with no steering wheel and no brakes felt electrifying for Shariff. As he travelled through the city with Rahwan, he held his phone out in front of him, filming the entire ride.

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