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Self-driving but guided by people: how to make automated vehicles ethical

New research has asked members of the public to help set “ethical red lines” for the deployment of self-driving vehicles

12 July 2023
The driverless Mi-Link service is currently running every 40 minutes on a 2.3-mile stretch of road in Milton Keynes with a safety driver on board
The driverless Mi-Link service is currently running every 40 minutes on a 2.3-mile stretch of road in Milton Keynes with a safety driver on board


It’s widely anticipated that self-driving vehicles will play an increasingly significant role in our transport over the coming decades. However, as technology developers rush to build, test and trial such vehicles, how do we make sure that self-driving vehicles are deployed and operated in a way that is acceptable to the communities affected by their presence?

The research report is available online: Ethical Roads — Reed Mobility

Nick Reed from Reed Mobility will be presenting the findings from the research at Transport AI, October 5, Manchester

Reed Mobility carried out a survey of more than 2,000 participants and held two workshops to investigate societal preferences for the behaviour of an urban self-driving bus service. The research has begun to elucidate a process and structure by which regulators can engage with the public in the acceptable and desirable features of self-driving vehicles.

The workshops and surveys identified several ‘ethical red lines’ – key facets of self-driving vehicle behaviour for which there seemed to be broad support:

The deployment of self-driving vehicles should improve road safety.

They should operate within a clear legal framework.

They should not take risks to save time or to reduce cost.

All road users should be protected equally.

Workshop participants strongly suggested that self-driving vehicles must always obey road rules but when faced with a choice between causing an injury collision and contravening a road rule, survey respondents suggested that a self-driving vehicle should minimise harm rather than comply with the rule.

“Self-driving but guided by people: How to make automated vehicles ethical” is a collaborative research project led by Reed Mobility, who received funding for the project from the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund 150 Competition in March 2022. 

Chair of the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund Trustees Ginny Clarke said, “We are pleased to see this report about the innovative work that Nick Reed has undertaken. As a joint winner of our 150 Competition the topic has been a worthy example of advancing a roads issue that will be an important part of our future for all road users. 

"Nick’s work reveals the importance for regulators of engaging the public in the design of an ‘acceptable’ framework within which the highest levels of automation could operate and provides a basis for that engagement to happen.”

Reed Mobility founder Nick Reed said, “Self-driving vehicles are hotly anticipated but, in the race to develop the technology, it is not clear that people’s expectations about how they will work have been fully considered.

"This project, supported by the Rees Jeffreys Road Fund, has enabled critical exploration into how self-driving vehicles should behave to align with the expectations of the communities into which they are deployed.

"A survey and in-depth workshops revealed that trust was the most important factor in gaining acceptance of such vehicles and several ethical ‘red lines’ were identified – critical factors that participants felt must be addressed in deploying self-driving vehicles.

"I am delighted with the results we have achieved, providing a route for the public perspective to be fully recognised in developing, regulating and operating self-driving vehicles for the good of the communities they are there to serve.”


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