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Self-Driving Cars and Engineering Ethics: The Need for a System Level Analysis


The literature on self-driving cars and ethics continues to grow. Yet much of it focuses on ethical complexities emerging from an individual vehicle. That is an important but insufficient step towards determining how the technology will impact human lives and society more generally. What must complement ongoing discussions is a broader, system level of analysis that engages with the interactions and effects that these cars will have on one another and on the socio-technical systems in which they are embedded. To bring the conversation of self-driving cars to the system level, we make use of two traffic scenarios which highlight some of the complexities that designers, policymakers, and others should consider related to the technology. We then describe three approaches that could be used to address such complexities and their associated shortcomings. We conclude by bringing attention to the “Moral Responsibility for Computing Artifacts: The Rules”, a framework that can provide insight into how to approach ethical issues related to self-driving cars.

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Fig. 1


  1. For a detailed discussion of human factors in socio-technical systems see Carayon (2006).


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Correspondence to Jason Borenstein.

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Borenstein, J., Herkert, J.R. & Miller, K.W. Self-Driving Cars and Engineering Ethics: The Need for a System Level Analysis. Sci Eng Ethics 25, 383–398 (2019).

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  • Artificial intelligence
  • Automation
  • Engineering ethics
  • Self-driving cars
  • Socio-technical systems