In the development of self-driving cars ethics play an important role. However, society and social values can change. How do you take that into account when you develop new technology? Dr. Ibo van de Poel is developing a new philosophical theory that could take that into account. Van de Poel of TU Delft talks about his research in his interview with 

Social values can change

An important social value that is part of self-driving cars is the responsibilities of the different parties. Current theory only takes present values into account, you include the current social values into your design. 'But sometimes those social values do change' explains Van de Poel. 'An example of such a changing value is energy and sustainability, 30 years ago we had a total different view on those values. Just when a lot of the energy systems were developed'. 

'The question is: can we design technologies in such a way that you can take social values into account, at a later stage, that were of less importance when the technology was introduced? For example: by making the technology more flexible, or by giving the end-user a larger role. The goal of the research is to come up with a new philosophical theory that can help with these kind of questions. We would like to better understand such changes, but also research how the current design of technology takes this problem into account'. 

You take five years to complete this new research. How could this be applied in five years in the development of self-driving cars? 

'A tension can arise between realizing short-term social values and creating room for other or changing social values in the long term. When developing self-driving cars, giving the end-user of the technology more freedom could be strategy. At the same time this larger freedom could impact or reduce safety at short-term. Another possible strategy is to choose for a modular system, in that way you can change parts of the technology and in that way adapt to changing social values. The idea is that our new theory could help when deciding on such topics.'

Self-driving cars discussions are often about technology, but ethics is also an important part of this discussion. Do you think enough attention is paid to this subject?

'Compared to a lot of other technologies in the past, there is a lot of attention for the ethical aspects of self-driving cars. For example, in Germany a ethical code of conduct has been drawn up about responsibilities in an accident. At TU Delft a colleague of mine is involved in the ethical aspects of self-driving cars, he wrote a advice to the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment. That is only one example. I can not judge what the opinion of car manufacturers on this subject is. But when talking in a broader sense, I have the opinion that there is a lot of discussion on the ethical values of self-driving cars, and in my opinion this is subject is being taking fairly seriously.'

This article is based on a Dutch article published here. 

Dr. Van de Poel is a full-time professor at the faculty of TPM. He is the char of the Social Values, Technology and Innovation department. His new research will continue with 'Value Sensitive Design'. This method means thinking, during development, about social values that are important for a technology, and taking that into account in the design. Examples are sustainability and safety. 

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