MIT’s global survey reveals ethical preferences and regional differences in AV ‘morality’


A new survey developed by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researchers reveals some distinct global preferences concerning the ethics of autonomous vehicles (AVs), as well as some surprising regional variations in those preferences.

The survey has global reach and a unique scale, with more than 2 million online participants from over 200 countries weighing in on versions of a classic ethical conundrum, the ‘Trolley Problem’. The theoretical problem involves scenarios in which an accident involving a vehicle is imminent, and the vehicle must opt for one of two potentially fatal options. In the case of driverless cars, that might mean swerving toward a couple of people, rather than a large group of bystanders.

To conduct the survey, the researchers designed what they call the ‘Moral Machine’, a multilingual online game in which participants could state their preferences concerning a series of dilemmas that AVs might face. For example, should the AV spare the lives of law-abiding bystanders, or, alternately, law-breaking pedestrians who might be jaywalking. In total, the Moral Machine compiled nearly 40 million individual decisions from respondents in 233 countries; the survey collected 100 or more responses from 130 countries.

The researchers analyzed the data as a whole, while also breaking participants into subgroups defined by age, education, gender, income and political and religious views. There were 491,921 respondents who offered demographic data.

The scholars did not find marked differences in moral preferences based on these demographic characteristics, but they did find larger ‘clusters’ of moral preferences based on cultural and geographic affiliations. They defined ‘western’, ‘eastern’, and ‘southern’ clusters of countries, and found some more pronounced variations along these lines.

For example, respondents in ‘southern’ countries had a relatively stronger tendency to favor sparing young people rather than the elderly, especially when compared to the ‘eastern’ cluster. In all regions there is a moderate preference for sparing law-abiding bystanders rather than jaywalkers. The researchers also found a less pronounced tendency to favor younger people, rather than the elderly, in the ‘eastern’ cluster of countries, including many in Asia.

“The study is basically trying to understand the kinds of moral decisions that driverless cars might have to resort to,” explained Edmond Awad, a postdoc at MIT’s Media Lab and lead author of a paper about the results of the project.

“We don’t know yet how they should do that. We found that there are three elements that people seem to approve of the most: sparing the lives of humans over the lives of other animals; sparing the lives of many people rather than a few; and preserving the lives of the young, rather than older people. The main preferences were to some degree universally agreed upon, but the degree to which they agree with this or not varies among different groups or countries. Knowing these preferences could, in theory, inform the way software is written to control autonomous vehicles.”

Associate professor Iyad Rahwan, at the Media Lab, added, “The question is whether these differences in preferences will matter in terms of people’s adoption of the new technology. On the one hand, we wanted to provide a simple way for the public to engage in an important societal discussion. On the other, we wanted to collect data to identify which factors people think are important for autonomous cars to use in resolving ethical trade-offs.”

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Tom has edited Traffic Technology International (TTi) magazine and its Traffic Technology Today website since May 2014. During his time at the title, he has interviewed some of the top transportation chiefs at public agencies around the world as well as CEOs of leading multinationals and ground-breaking start-ups. Tom's earlier career saw him working on some the UK's leading consumer magazine titles. He has a law degree from the London School of Economics (LSE).