Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 21, Issue 3, pp 685–698 | Cite as

Crash Algorithms for Autonomous Cars: How the Trolley Problem Can Move Us Beyond Harm Minimisation

  • Dietmar Hübner
  • Lucie WhiteEmail author


The prospective introduction of autonomous cars into public traffic raises the question of how such systems should behave when an accident is inevitable. Due to concerns with self-interest and liberal legitimacy that have become paramount in the emerging debate, a contractarian framework seems to provide a particularly attractive means of approaching this problem. We examine one such attempt, which derives a harm minimisation rule from the assumptions of rational self-interest and ignorance of one’s position in a future accident. We contend, however, that both contractarian approaches and harm minimisation standards are flawed, due to a failure to account for the fundamental difference between those ‘involved’ and ‘uninvolved’ in an impending crash. Drawing from classical works on the trolley problem, we show how this notion can be substantiated by reference to either the distinction between negative and positive rights, or to differences in people’s claims. By supplementing harm minimisation with corresponding constraints, we can develop crash algorithms for autonomous cars which are both ethically adequate and promise to overcome certain significant practical barriers to implementation.


Autonomous cars Self-driving vehicles Crash algorithms Trolley problem Harm minimisation 



Many thanks to Markus Ahlers, Sven Nyholm, and two anonymous referees from Ethical Theory and Moral Practice for their useful comments on an earlier draft of this paper.


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institut für PhilosophieLeibniz Universität HannoverHannoverGermany

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