POLICYBER: Paving the Road Ahead for Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles are coming.  But before you can ask your car to drive you to the airport or go grab a cup of coffee for you, there are significant hurdles that must be overcome.  The most obvious are technological: How can you ensure that an autonomous car really can perform in every edge and corner case?  Solving the technology problems, though, may be easy compared with breaking down the legal and regulatory barriers to truly autonomous cars.

On April 15, the University of Michigan Law School hosted a conference focused on these legal and regulatory issues.  The Autonomous Vehicles Conference brought together experts from industry, government, and academia to discuss the barriers to deploying these vehicles.  Here are four key takeaways from the discussion:

1. Autonomous vehicles require uniform regulations.

The current patchwork of state autonomous vehicle regulations is unworkable and will lead to inconsistent rules between states.  There must be uniformity. The panelists all strongly agreed that the federal government should continue to set uniform safety standards for vehicles, and that these safety standards should encompass autonomous capabilities, as well.   But in light of the states’ traditional role in regulating traffic safety, there was a consensus that the federal government (and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) in particular) should refrain from a top-down approach to imposing new regulations that would displace states entirely from regulating autonomous driving.  Instead, the federal government should let states work together to develop uniform regulations, with help from NHTSA.  NHTSA is currently developing a baseline model state policy, which developers believe is a good starting point for the states.

2.  The federal government will become more active in this space.

NHTSA is conducting public forums, and developing operational guidances and model state policies for issues related to autonomous vehicles.  It will release a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on vehicle-to-vehicle communications within the next few months. 

Google is lobbying Congress to grant the Secretary of Transportation additional authority to either approve new technology or grant exceptions to rules affecting new technology.  This authority would allow companies to deploy new technology without having to wait for notice-and-comment rulemaking.

3.  Cybersecurity and privacy are major concerns.

Autonomous vehicles are interconnected, and this interconnection is only likely to increase as the technology develops. This raises significant questions about cybersecurity and privacy.  Interconnected vehicles could turn into targets for hackers, so developers must develop secure software to protect drivers and the public.  Additionally, the vast amount of information gathered and used by autonomous vehicles creates issues with who owns this information and how it should be used.

4.  Lots of questions remain unanswered

A number of legal questions need to be answered before we see a widespread deployment of truly autonomous vehicles. These questions include who bears the risk of liability between manufacturers, software developers, and drivers; how to deal with the aftermarket for these vehicles; and how industries that have never worked together will adapt their usual practices to foster cooperation.  Answering these questions is one of the key challenges facing autonomous vehicles. 

Autonomous vehicles are an exciting new technology, but must overcome a host of legal issues before becoming mainstream.  Wiley Rein will continue to monitor developments in this field and to provide periodic updates.  If you have questions or ideas to share, please contact the authors. https://www.wiley.law

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