How Michelin Has Already Solved Part of the Trolley Problem

They started with this: Every disaster is a wise choice avoided.

Alex Roy

That pesky thought experiment known as The Trolley Problem has been making the rounds again, and once again I’m reminded of the disconnect between the clickbait media, mobility “experts” and the real world. What’s the problem? The traditional definition of the Trolley Problem—like those of the SAE Automation Levels meant to classify self-driving cars—is both stupid and wrong, and masks real world solutions for improving safety today.

In the context of self-driving, the Trolley Problem sets up a scenario where a fully autonomous vehicle approaches, say, a mobility expert herding a group of blind children out of a burning conference building where—yup—they had been listening to an Uber-sponsored lecture on the merits of Level 4 autonomy. There is no time to stop or steer around them. The only option is to run them over or steer into the building, killing the vehicle’s occupants.

What should the car do?

Run them over, obviously, as I’ve already explained in great detail. No one will ever get into a self-driving car that doesn’t favor its occupants. There is either no Trolley Problem, or there will never be self-driving cars.

The real problem? Everyone who debates the traditional Trolley Problem. The Trolley Problem never existed except as a time-wasting diversion from solutions right in front of us, partially technological, but mostly in our minds. There is only one choice, and that is to redefine the Trolley Problem by broadening its scope to include the real world factors leading back to the traditional definition, and eliminate them.

Luckily, companies like Michelin are already doing that.

The Michelin Pilot Experience

Last month, in a display of courage rare in the auto sector, Michelin invited me on a press trip to test their new flagship PS4S against Pirelli’s P-Zero Nero GT at a Monterey airstrip. I didn’t need to go to be convinced. I’ve been loyal to the brand for 20+ years, having used Michelin’s best on almost every endurance driving record where I paid for the tires.

Alex Roy

Rolling my PS2's to the Cannonball start garage, 2006

Jalopnik unfairly skewered Michelin for an invitee list that included a variety of influencers—you know, those YouTubers with little knowledge, huge followings, and car collections paid for by their parents. I was guilty of joining in with a video mocking one of them for his regurgitation of marketing drivel it was unclear he understood. In hindsight it became clear that both Jalopnik and I had completely missed the point.

Alex Roy

Whoever was responsible for the Michelin event is a genius.

Whatever your opinion of influencers, kids like Shmee150 are—as Lenin put it—useful idiots in the service of a greater good. As much as I want to believe that influencer glorification of horsepower and specs merely inspires their underage audiences to greater heights of irresponsibility on the road, this isn’t necessarily true.

Take a good look at this $1.9M Koenigsegg Regera and what do you see? Michelin’s best.

Alex Roy

If Michelin, by inviting influencers to experience and appreciate the difference between tires, can raise state-of-the-art tire technology to the level of glorification now dominated by engine technology and carbon fiber, they are doing more to improve safety than all the self-driving pundits will in the next ten years. Ok, maybe fifty.

Cars—human or self-driven—need tires. The decision tree that starts at the house and ends in a crash depends on countless forks. Any technology that leads away from an impact is a good one.

Alex Roy

Although Michelin’s demonstration was very convincing, the real issue isn’t Michelin vs Pirelli, it’s that the next generation of human drivers appreciate that tires are part of performance, that even within brands there are levels of quality, and that everything counts in large amounts.

I would never own a car at any price without the best possible tires I could afford. The very best tires are the cheapest upgrade one could ever make to a car. Do you love your wife? Your husband? Your kids? Get better tires. That Michelin is marketing them as a performance upgrade to the Youtube crowd isn’t cynicism, it’s both wise and moral. Tire manufacturers are the firefighters of the automotive industry. It is impossible to argue against them, or anything they do to improve their products. There is no greater demonstration of trickle-down theory than track-to-street improvements in both performance and safety. When it comes to tires, performance is safety.

Which brings us back to the so-called Trolley Problem.

The Real Trolley Problem

The real Trolley Problem requires thinking outside the box, above and beyond the traditional problem. In order to avoid the unwinnable scenario, wise choices are necessary before events are in motion. It doesn’t matter who or what is in control. Every disaster is a wise a choice avoided. Actually, it’s a series of wise choices, most of which are easier and cheaper at the outset.

Self-driving cars? Between now and ubiquity we can expect a long slog, but before we relinquish our control over machines, it is our responsibility to accept reality as it is. Physics is a harsh mistress, but also fair. Physics tells thousands of times a day what will happen in an avalanche of if/then examples we often choose not to see. If we make choices that enhance our control over outcomes, we increase our agency over life itself, which is the ultimate sum of outcomes. If we choose to believe we never had agency, then life was never worth living, because we never understood the rules governing life and death.

Ergo, self-driving cars.

We don’t need to wait for self-driving cars to improve safety. Except for AI, all the component technologies of self-driving are here for us to use. Until 100% of human drivers are using winter tires in the winter, the shortest and cheapest path to reducing road fatalities is right before us. Until 100% of teens buy new tires before engine upgrades, there is work to do, and companies like Michelin are doing it.

Don’t even get me started about licensing, but that’s another story.

Alex Roy is Editor-at-Large for The Drive, Host of The Autonocast, co-host of /DRIVE on NBC Sports and author of The Driver, has set numerous endurance driving records in Europe & the USA in the internal combustion, EV, 3-wheeler & Semi-Autonomous Classes, including the infamous Cannonball Run record. You can follow him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.