The Talmud and Self-Driving Cars: Who Knew?

Autonomous vehicles raise ethical issues the sages of the Talmud explored long before there were cars.

I’ve already become accustomed to seeing Waymo cars, which had their beginnings as Google’s self-driving car project, in practice runs on the streets near my home. It wasn’t until I audited a fascinating course on Jewish law at Stanford Law School this fall, however, that I realized autonomous cars present ethical issues that should concern all of us.

Test runs by Waymo vehicles like this one are already an everyday encounter where I live.

What could be cooler in Silicon Valley than driverless cars and why would a Jewish law class even have this topic on its syllabus? Although there is potential for self-driving cars to reduce accidents overall, some unavoidable collisions will undoubtedly occur. When that happens, the actions taken by these cars in the seconds prior to a crash will be determined by complex algorithms written by software programmers. Whose lives the cars will protect or prioritize, and who is responsible for those choices, are serious societal questions that may well require new rules of the road.

WHAT ABOUT THE TROLLEY PROBLEM? If like me you are a fan of “The Good Place,” you will recognize similarities to the “Trolley Problem” (see season 2, episode 5) that has been debated in philosophy over the past half century. It asks whether under a situation in which five people are about to be killed by a speeding trolley, is it ethical to divert the trolley onto another track, where it would hit and kill just one person instead?

AND THE FLYING ARROW? Not surprisingly to students of the Talmud, a very similar question was considered and vigorously debated by Jewish sages. Their perspective on issues such as whether it is ethical to end one life in order to save the lives of a larger group is highly relevant to the problems posed by autonomous vehicles. Take a look at what the Hazon Ish had to say in Sanhedrin, no. 25.

SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED? Sitting here just minutes from Facebook and Google headquarters, it’s easy to understand why this is not just an intellectual exercise. It is an important topic that should be debated in full public view, since the outcome will affect all of us, whether we are passengers, pedestrians or bystanders. Academia has taken note of the issues, from MIT conducting a global survey of 2 million people to teams of researchers focused on the ethical issues posed by technology receiving National Science Foundation support for their efforts.

Who will decide whether to favor passengers in an autonomous car or others in an unavoidable collision? Will there be oversight or enforceable standards? Who should have a seat at the table? What should consumers be entitled to know when they summon an autonomous vehicle to transport them?

Jewish tradition has much to contribute to the discussion as it does to a wide range of contemporary challenges. Visiting law professor Rabbi Michael Broyde based at Emory University’s Law School and its Center for the Study of Law and Religion, taught the first-time Stanford Law School course. With other current hot topics ranging from war and conflict, to intellectual property, bioethics, end of life issues and more, he showed the relevance and remarkable depth of Jewish legal discourse to 21st century issues. Guest speaker Rabbi Yona Reiss, head of the Chicago Rabbinical Court and former Dean of the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary of Yeshiva University, elucidated the foundational Talmudic concepts related to autonomous vehicles—from the prohibition against acts that constitute murder, to the obligation to rescue, and the tensions that can rise when very narrow distinctions and outright conflicts between such principles occur.

Now when I see a Waymo car, I’ll be thinking about the Talmud. Let’s hope for the sake of all of us, and for what is at stake, that those making the ethical decisions about autonomous vehicles will too.

Autonomous Automobiles and the Trolley Problem” by J. David Bleich, published by the Rabbinical Council of America in “Tradition” provides an excellent overview of the Jewish perspective. It is currently available to subscribers online. The Center for Automotive Research at Stanford brings together researchers, students, industry government and community and offers news accessible to the public. 


About the Author
Shelley is a consultant who has held executive and board leadership roles in the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley Jewish community. She led development of the Palo Alto Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life, was board president of Hillel at Stanford, and has served on the advisory boards of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford Medical Center, the Taube Center for Jewish Studies and the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life & Culture. At Stanford she was the university's Director of Business Development and Executive Director for Public Affairs at Stanford Health Care. She began her career as a journalist and currently focuses on strategic communications and writing. Email:
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