Interactive: Grappling With The Ethics of Self-Driving Cars

Dec 05, 2016
Ethics, Activity, Research, Teaching Strategies, New Products, Current Events, Activities, Interactive

Skimming this FT article about Apple’s efforts in the autonomous vehicle market, I was intrigued with the introduction of ethics into the conversation:

Apple urges the regulator to continue “thoughtful exploration of the ethical issues” of self-driving cars.

“Because automated vehicles promise such a broad and deep human impact, companies should consider the ethical dimensions of them in comparably broad and deep terms,” Apple writes. These considerations include privacy, how the cars’ software systems make decisions and the impact on employment and public spaces, it says.

As the technology gets closer to adoption, I expect the focus will shift to the ethical implications, especially this idea of how the software systems will make decisions. Which makes this next resource so engaging. Here is a fascinating interactive developed by the MIT Media Lab which forces students to grapple with these ethical issues. The 45 second video above explains the simulation in greater detail (440,000 views after just three months!):


  1. Click on “Start Judging” to begin the simulation
  2. You will be presented with 13 different scenarios (Teacher note: you may want to chunk these scenarios and have a discussion about halfway through as it does get a bit repetitive). In each scenario, click on “Show Description” to learn more about the choices that you will have to make about who will die (seems a bit drastic) and who will be spared by the self-driving car. It is important that you read through each scenario carefully.
  3. Once you have made your decision, click directly on the schematic drawing and advance to the next scenario.
  4. After you have completed all scenarios, you will see a dashboard showing how your decisions compared to the others who have played the simulation. ‘


  1. How would you describe your attitude about self-driving cars BEFORE this activity?
  2. In reviewing the dashboard, which groups were your biased towards saving? Explain your justification for saving these groups.
  3. Did your answers in #2 surprise you? Are they consistent with your personal ethics?
  4. Imagine you are a programmer at a company developing machine learning for a self-driving car. What ethical considerations would you have to grapple with?
  5. What were your key takeaways after completing this simulation?
  6. Do you have a different attitude about self-driving cars and machine learning AFTER the activity?


Be sure to check out the just released NGPF Lesson on Ethics 



About the Author

Tim Ranzetta

Tim's saving habits started at seven when a neighbor with a broken hip gave him a dog walking job. Her recovery, which took almost a year, resulted in Tim getting to know the bank tellers quite well (and accumulating a savings account balance of over $300!). His recent entrepreneurial adventures have included driving a shredding truck, analyzing executive compensation packages for Fortune 500 companies and helping families make better college financing decisions. After volunteering in 2010 to create and teach a personal finance program at Eastside College Prep in East Palo Alto, Tim saw firsthand the impact of an engaging and activity-based curriculum, which inspired him to start a new non-profit, Next Gen Personal Finance.