One of the main questions surrounding autonomous vehicles and the possibility of failure is whether the vehicle should protect the passengers or nearby pedestrians. According to a global study done by the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Chinese using autonomous vehicles prefer hitting a pedestrian instead of placing the vehicle’s passengers in danger.

These results were the product of an experiment called the “Moral Machine”, and was published by the MIT Technology Review. In 2014, the MIT Media Lab created an online platform with the goal of gathering information about people’s opinions on how autonomous vehicles should behave in the unfortunate case of failure. The platform simulated variations of situations in which lives had to prioritized. The game-like platform used a classic “trolley problem”, which gave the person undergoing the experiment limited control of a metaphorical runaway trolley. The experiment was done in several countries, and the results showed China place significant emphasis on saving the autonomous vehicle’s passengers, while Japan preferred sparing pedestrians.

The various scenarios simulated by the experiment not only questioned saving passengers versus pedestrians, but also humans versus pets, women versus men, young versus old, more lives versus few lives, and healthy versus sick people. Both the Chinese and Japanese preferred saving old people over younger ones in the case of a mishap. Autonomous vehicle users in France, Greece, and Canada, on the other hand, are more likely to save young people over the old. 39.6 million decisions were generated in 10 languages, gathered from people in 233 countries. The results showed clustering patterns, which means similar geographical and cultural backgrounds cause groups to share the same preferences in moral dilemmas.

The British scientific journal Nature analysed the data and presented their findings. Edmond award, a co-author of the paper, said “We used the trolley problem because it’s a very good way to collect this data, but we hope the discussion of ethics don’t stay within that theme… the discussion should move to risk analysis – about who is at more risk or less risk – instead of saying who’s going to die or not, and also about how bias is happening.”

The MIT Media Lab was inspired to design this experiment by the moral dilemmas that have arisen with the development of AI technologies for autonomous vehicles. Though autonomous vehicle companies claim this revolution will reduce the amount of lives lost in car accidents, they are yet to gain the trust of the general public when it comes to making decisions in life or death scenarios. The Media Lab hopes for the results gathered from this experiment to be of help in informing the autonomous vehicle companies, as well as government policymakers, about what the public’s preferences are when it comes to saving lives in case of mishaps in self-driving cars.