Philosophy Professor to Study Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

Heidi Furey is part of a National Science Foundation grant focused on the dilemmas surrounding autonomous vehicles.

Inside of driverless carUber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi recently said that he wants fully unmanned taxis serving paying customers by mid-2019. But what happens when these driverless cars are on the road?

Heidi Furey, Ph.D., an assistant professor of philosophy at Manhattan College, along with two other philosophers and a civil engineer, are working to answer those questions in a project titled “Ethical Algorithms in Autonomous Vehicles,” supported by a $556,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.

Since the technology is relatively new, the challenge of working on the ethics of self-driving cars is to anticipate what sort of moral issues will arise as they are introduced and become entrenched in society. Furey and the team’s first step is to map out the ethical terrain – the ethical algorithms – and determine the best way to resolve those issues, working with faculty and students from across different disciplines at the College.

The project has two specific aims:

  • To develop ethical algorithms that can be converted into computer code for use in autonomous vehicles. They will also model changes in traffic risk profiles and expected public health impact of these algorithms; specifically, they will apply injury severity and crash frequency modeling using algorithms developed in meeting the first aim in a range of traffic contexts and market penetration scenarios.
  • To develop a model for the expected public health benefits from these algorithms using model of resource and time-based triaging as a starting point.

Both aims have been designed to promote diverse interactions between STEM students and practitioners, and they will serve to improve STEM education and educator development, while giving students a basis in the liberal arts, specifically the philosophical questions created by new technology.

Furey, whose focus is the philosophy of technology, was drawn to the topic after teaching engineering classes at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell earlier in her career. Students embraced the intersection of engineering and the liberal arts, that allowed them to combine critical thinking with manufacturing and design, a natural progression to studying the ethics of self-driving cars.

Nicholas Evans, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, is the principal investigator on the project, alongside Furey, Ryan Jenkins, assistant professor of philosophy at California Polytechnic State University, and Yuanchang Xie, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

By Pete McHugh