An Engineer’s Perspective on the Trolley Problem

What is the Trolley Problem?

You’ve very likely heard the problem outlined before at some point. 

A trolley has lost its brakes and is hurtling out of control. You are right by a track switch and can divert the train to another path. If you flip the switch, the trolley will go down one track and kill five people. If you don’t, it will go down another track and kill twelve children. 

This is the classic framing of the “trolley problem,” which is used in ethics classes, law classes, philosophy classes, et cetera. The variations are endless. The two tracks can have any size of crowds with people of varying ages, all doomed before the trolley. 

The question posed is designed to make people consider the ethical implications of acting or not acting. If you act, do you have to take responsibility? If you don’t act, do you get to shirk responsibility? The debates about this problem in academic settings have been endless.

Applying the Trolley Problem to Engineering

The funny thing is, in engineering school, we almost never discuss the trolley problem. From the engineer’s viewpoint, this type of ethical conundrum should never occur in the first place (and, of course, it rarely does in real life anyway).

For an engineer, the trolley losing its brakes constitutes a failure in mechanics. Instead of dwelling on what should happen after the brakes on the trolley go, engineers prefer to consider how time, attention, and experience could have prevented the incident from happening in the first place.

  1. What type of braking system was it? Should the system have been designed differently? 
  2. Were the brakes properly maintained and checked? 

Or, if we assume the trolley problem was a real event that occurred, an engineer might look back at it and ask questions about preventative engineering:

  1. Are there tests that can be done in the future to prevent it from happening again? 
  2. Are there safeguards that can be put in place, such as a secondary braking system? 
  3. Which other systems could be considered safer?


Prevention is the Only Dilemma Facing Engineers

In engineering, prevention is the primary goal. This is one reason we prefer projects where there is early engagement with engineers; this way, we are involved in a project from the outset, looking at it from all sides and predicting what may happen in unusual circumstances (such as the trolley problem or this bridge in China that reacted to high winds earlier this year).  

This is how engineering works (or tries to work). We do our best to ensure that an ethical decision process such as that outlined in the trolley problem never has to happen. I hope this helps illustrate how engineers approach design situations. If you want to learn more, reach out!

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