What Would Happen if a Future Apple Autonomous Car Made a Very Bad Decision?

All the technical signs point to a future with autonomous (self-driving) cars. Just about every major car company is working on that technology including, we suspect, Apple. But what would happen, hypothetically, if one of these cars were to make a bad mistake in software judgment that injures someone? The legal and ethical issues are enormous and worthy of deep exploration.

This week, Tim Bajarin, the President of Creative Strategies, Inc starts off the discussion with a very thoughtful essay. " Autonomous Cars and Their Ethical Conundrum."

Mr. Bajarin starts off by noting:

...we are years away from getting autonomous cars on the road and getting the right kind of government regulations passed to make this possible. But the technology is getting close enough to create these types of vehicles and, in theory, they could be ready for the streets within the next three to five years.

It's good that we have these early signs now because there are many ethical and legal issues to be worked out. An excellent example of this is the hypothetical case that he posed.

Let’s say that I am in a self-driving car. It has full control, and the brakes go out. We are about to enter an intersection where a school bus had almost finished turning left, a kid on his bike is in the crosswalk just in front of the car, and an elderly woman is about enter the crosswalk on the right. How does this car deal with this conundrum? Does it think, “if I swerve to the left, I take out a school bus with 30 kids on it. If I go straight, I take out a kid on a bike. If I swerve right, I hit the little old lady?” Is it thinking, “the bus has many lives on it, and the kid on the bike is young and has a long life ahead, but the elderly woman has lived a long life, so I will take her out” as the least onerous solution?”

Ponder that for a minute.

Also, not considered here, and I think it should be, is the more important question of the car's responsibility to its owner. By that I mean the car in the above scenario might well solve the problem by assessing which course of action would lead to the least danger of injury to its own passengers, not the external people.

It gets more interesting. Questions that are likely to come up include:

  • Will all autonomous cars be required to have 360 deg cameras and even more estensive data recorders to log the last minute before an accident?
  • Will the computer logs be definitive in a court of law even if reliable eyewitnesses contradict the logs? (See, for example, "How A Little Lab In West Virginia Caught Volkswagen's Big Cheat.")
  • In the event of a software ethical failure, who bears the liability of the car's actions? The manufacturer or the owner? That will make for an interesting EULA.
  • How is the list of ethical priorities constructed when it comes to deciding who (or what) will end up being damaged in certain kinds of emergencies? Is the life of a beloved dog in your car more valuable than another person's Ferrari?

  • How will the insurance industry weigh in on (or influence) the car industry's attempts to generate ethical rules that could be financially unfavorable insurance-wise?

No one knows all the answers today, but Mr. Bajarin recounts how at a Mercedes-Benz’s North American R&D event, the argument was made that we need philosophers to help sort out these issues.

We've already seen how the emergence of smartphone technology has challenged the tech industry when it comes to compromises between privacy, security and profitability. Is that current balance (or imbalance) a template for the future? Or is it a sobering warning sign that we need to to much better when people's lives are at stake?

It's going to be an interesting ride.

Next page: the tech news debris for the week of October 19. Apple's next target industry could well be....

Page 2 - The Tech News Debris for the Week of October 19


Particle Debris is nominally about the interesting news and tidbits related to Apple during the week that didn't make the TMO headlines. And so, last week, I was writing about Apple retail stores, and this juicy tidbit from 2001 didn't get into the column. And so it's presented now, just for the sake of some perspective about how people were thinking about the Apple retail store initiative in 2001. It'll have you on the floor laughing. Or CTTN.

Commentary: Sorry, Steve: Here's Why Apple Stores Won't Work.

Tech hardware keeps getting less expensive—or more powerful for the same price. One product exception is cable service, according to Business Insider. Make of it what you will. "Every type of tech product has gotten cheaper over the last two decades — except for one."

Dan Moren has read the Apple tea leaves and thinks that, someday, perhaps, Apple will be in a position to do something about that. "How Apple's positioned to offer cheap data at home and abroad."

The trend seems to be that if Apple executives are very unhappy with the crappy products and service they're personally getting from company X, look out. Company X is doomed.

Moving on...

The battle between physical media wages on. For every person who is satisfied with the "good enough" video stream they get, there is another who wants the convenience and high resolution of a Blu-ray disc. Of course, the TV industry itself doesn't mind picking up the extra revenue from the customer desire for those virtues. Quoted below...

For starters, there’s an inherent simplicity to the five-inch physical disc — you can plop it into the player and watch a movie, with no need for an Internet connection, no password to remember, no buffering or bandwidth capacity issues to worry about.

Personally, I don't buy very many Blu-ray discs anymore unless it's something I want and can't get on Netflix, like the latest episodes of the Murdoch Mysteries. Even so, I think UHD Blu-ray, now technically ready, is going to help usher in 4K UHD TV just as standard Blu-ray helped launch HDTV.

The article I'm mentioning here is primarily an industry press release, but it does tell an important story. Even if Apple ignores this story, it's still out there to be considered, no matter what your plans are for the new, 4th gen Apple TV. "Blu-ray at 10: The Flexibility Factor."

4th Gen Apple TV. Credit: Apple.

Speaking of the new Apple TV, Steven Aquino at iMore has posted a great piece about "Apple TV and accessibility." This information could come in very handy for you, a family member or friend.

Apple probably knew that there would be a flurry of 4K mania this holiday season when it decided not to support it in that new Apple TV. Here's just one more example. "Vudu Rolls Out Warner 4K Movies."

With some sassy language, TechDirt opines on how, "The Cable Industry Thinks Cord Cutting's A Fad That Will End Once Millennials Procreate." It's a fun read.

iPhone 7 and iOS 10 rumors! Already! Here's #1 "Report says iPhone 7 may feature Apple’s most dramatic design changes ever" Here's #2. "iOS 10 release date and feature rumours; iOS 10 may feature iCloud Voicemail" Drool city.

However, for now, we'll have to live with iOS 9 and Apple's well-thought-out ability to both motivate and allow iPhone users to upgrade. That's essential for security these days. For some nice punctuation and contrast to Android, see my final entry for the week: "iOS 9.1 Demonstrates Apple's Superpower Over Android."


Debris is a generally a mix of John Martellaro's observations and opinions about a standout event or article of the week (preamble on page one) followed by a discussion of articles that didn't make the TMO headlines, the technical news debris. The column is published most every Friday except for holidays.