Self-Driving Cars, Georgia Drivers, and the Molly Problem

Sometimes referred to as Motor Vehicle Collisions (MVC) or Motor Vehicle Accidents (MVA), car crashes can be incredibly fatal for those involved. Georgia has made incredible progress in reducing these numbers over the past few years. In 2018, Georgia had a total of 1,504 traffic fatalities, which is a 2.3 percent decrease from the previous year. 

It helps that car manufacturers are now putting increased focus on protective layering in their vehicles. Cars are now built with impact-absorbing exterior panels to protect those inside. Bumpers and deformable front ends are reinforced to handle both rear-end and front-end collisions. While these safety measures protect those inside the cars, pedestrians are still at high risk of car crashes. 

In Georgia, the number of pedestrian deaths has gone up for the third year in a row. In 2018, there were 261 pedestrian fatalities. Those numbers increased 60 percent over the last five years state-wide. 

This increase in pedestrians killed in car accidents could be incredibly concerning as self-driving cars become more advanced. The best way to understand this problem is through a handy philosophical discussion often called the Molly Problem.

What is the Molly Problem?

No, this is not referring to marijuana. Some have discussed changing the name for that particular reason, but because it is the most common name used for this moral dilemma, it will be used here. 

The Molly problem was initially developed from the infamous Trolley Problem, where you are driving a trolley on a track and have to decide. You can either continue straight and run over five people or veer to the right and only kill one person. There are other versions of this dilemma, such as pushing a person in front of the train instead of changing tracks. 

The Molly problem proposes a situation where a young girl is in that position. When Molly crosses the road, an unoccupied self-driving car hits and kills her. There are no eyewitnesses because no one is in the vehicle, and Molly was alone. The debate focuses on what the vehicle should take following the incident.

There are other versions of the Molly problem that propose that a passenger is in the car. In this example, the focus is less focused on the AI acting on its own and more concentrated on how the car should react to the passenger’s instructions.

What This Means for Self-Driving Cars

As can be seen, a series of questions already arise from the proposed situation. How does the car even tell that it has been in an accident? The computer may not recognize a small bump in the road as an accident and continue driving. Would the car owner be held at fault even though they were not present in the car at the time of the accident?

Even if the car did notice that an accident had taken place, what should the vehicle do next? Some say the car should call 911, especially if there is no driver in the car. However, say the little girl was just a bump in the road that the car recognized as a possible accident and stopped? Then 911 resources are wasted on a false alarm when someone else may be in actual need.  

No matter how the Molly problem is viewed, it is a lose-lose situation for everyone involved. Engineers cannot properly code a robot that knows exactly what to do in every case. If the car is too sensitive, resources will be wasted, but if the car is not perceptive enough, someone may die because the car simply did not notice.

Self-driving cars could increase the number of pedestrian deaths, which is already of concern for Georgia. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there are 750,000 hit-and-run incidents in the United States every year. These accidents cause roughly 2,000 fatalities, with 65 percent of them being pedestrians and bicyclists. 

“We need to ensure that we keep our citizens safe, from the person on the sidewalk to the one behind the wheel,” says Attorney Jennifer Gore-Cuthbert, from Atlanta Personal Injury Law Firm – Gore LLC.

With pedestrian deaths already being a concern for the state, legislators may need to take a look at what our future roadways may look like and what that could mean for the future of our safety.