Autonomated Vehicle Conference highlights legal barriers to driverless car development

Sunday, April 17, 2016 - 6:36pm

Eric Williams, Senior Regulatory Counsel for Tesla Motors, speaks at the Automated Vehicle Conference in the Honigman Auditorium Room in Hutchins Hall on Friday morning.

Eric Williams, Senior Regulatory Counsel for Tesla Motors, speaks at the Automated Vehicle Conference in the Honigman Auditorium Room in Hutchins Hall on Friday morning. Buy this photo
Evan Aaron/ Daily

 

The University of Michigan Law School hosted a conference Friday to discuss regulatory issues surrounding driverless car technology, featuring speakers from Google, Tesla Motors and the U.S. Department of Defense.

The conference took place throughout the day and was split into four panels tackling different issues: state versus federal regulation of autonomous vehicle operation, issues arising firm new industry coordination and technology integration, new models and risks for tort liability concerning autonomous vehicles and incentivizing innovation networks.

Along with speakers from industries developing driverless cars, such as Google, Tesla and Ford, representatives from State Farm insurance, Miller Canfield and various departments in the state and federal government, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) gave closing remarks at the reception following the conference.

The event was largely attended by Law School students, faculty and representatives from insurance and other companies.

Law School Prof. Daniel Crane, associate dean for faculty and research,  discussed the multitude of legal and regulatory problems associated with automated vehicle technology, such as insurance, data security and privacy, intellectual property and other state and federal legislation.

Crane said the conference was part of a larger project of detailing and researching current legislation related to automated vehicle technology undertaken by Law students, and after the conference, students would finish reporting on their findings.

“We hope to eventually produce a document that will be a useful blueprint in thinking systematically across the range of issues that are presented by vehicle automation,” Crane said.

The University has been a pioneer in developing driverless car technology in past years, most notably through establishing Mcity — the world’s first test-track created for the purpose of studying autonomous vehicles — in July 2015.

Huei Peng, director of the Mobility Transformation Center, the center that oversees Mcity, said developing automated vehicle technology would greatly improve the safety and efficiency of cars, which he said was a technology that has stayed about the same for the past decade. Peng noted driverless cars could lead to impacts in an array of fields, including infrastructure, business and legality.

“MTC is not just about technology; MTC is focusing on how to implement this technology to improve the current status of ground transportation,” Peng said at the conference. “Therefore, we are very proud to have the opportunity to work with the Law School.”

Thomas Lue, corporate counsel at Google, said during the conference that his company is committed to autonomous vehicle technology for its potential to increase safety and mobility for all citizens, and particularly the disabled and others who are limited by modern-day mobility. However, he noted as the technology advances, state and federal legislation could have the potential to make self-driving cars a non-feasible initiative.

Eric Williams, senior regulatory counsel at Tesla Motors, discussed recent developments in automotive safety, noting that there are fewer deaths on the road per miles driven now than there have ever been, in part due to features like air bags and anti-lock breaking systems. However, he said the challenge is that any time a new safety feature is introduced, it takes a minimum of 30 years before 95 percent of all cars utilize this technology because cars do not get replaced very often.

During Lue’s remarks, he proposed uniform legislation across 50 states and flexibility for different levels of automation, defined as the proportion of how much a car versus a person operates the vehicle. Williams echoed that idea, and said autonomous vehicle regulation should be left to the federal government, whereas states should deal with licensing and certification of drivers.

“There’s no question of if autonomous technology will be safer than human drivers one day; the real question is, when will they reach that point,” Williams said. “We are not there yet, but we will get there at some point, and once we get to that point, to delay that technology because of restrictive regulation or cumbersome certification procedures, what we are doing is a disservice to consumer safety.”

Tim Johnson, director of vehicle crash avoidance and electronic controls research at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told attendees that the the federal government is aware of the challenges associated with regulating driverless cars, which the NHTSA detailed in a March 2016 report, titled the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for Automated Vehicles.

“One thing we do not want to be at NHTSA is a roadblock for safety-enhancing technology,” Johnson said. “If there is new technology we can get out on the roadways, we want to encourage that as much as possible.”

He noted an instance where BMW asked NHTSA if remote controlled parking systems comply with federal regulation, to which the federal government issued a response to this January.

In a similar vein, Law School alum Rebekah Lewis, attorney at the U.S. Department of Defense, higlighted potentional threats to cybersecurity from integration of software and connectivity features in cars as opposed to just hardware, saying they presented difficult, but not unworkable, challenges.

“There are certainly novel issues, but I think we can also look to the past in how we have developed and addressed these issues,” she said. “This isn’t completely un-trodden territory; there are patterns we can look to.”

In response to several of the speaker’s remarks, Law School student John Muhs asked why differing regulation among states was problematic, suggesting manufacturers could adjust their vehicles to the most stringent state legislation, to which Lue replied catering to a state’s legislation would hinder full innovation from Google’s driverless car developers.

“In our view, if we take that approach and see some of the legislation that’s already been proposed, it would not achieve the ultimate vision that we want,” Lue said.