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Autonomous Vehicles Interview with Bryant Walker Smith

Autonomous Vehicles Interview with Bryant Walker Smith

June 21, 2017

Bryant Walker Smith, Assistant Professor, School of Law, University of South Carolina

Personally, what is the most interesting aspect in the convergence of the tech and automobile sectors?
The automotive industry has always been a “technology” sector — first hardware and then software. But the race for automated driving, especially the involvement of Silicon Valley, has focused a lot of attention on what it means for a technology to be “ready.” Traditional automakers are used to deliberately designing, manufacturing, and selling a specific kind of vehicle to (at least aspirationally) withstand any conceivable use case to which an individual might subject it now or a decade later. Information service companies such as Google are used to a perpetual beta mode in which they are constantly tweaking, changing, discontinuing, expanding — and above all controlling — the services they offer. Both sides are converging somewhere in the middle. New developers are realizing that it actually takes a huge amount of work to get something from 99% reliable to 99.9999% reliable — and traditional automakers are realizing that their first automated driving products are much more likely to be services.

What are the challenges facing the autonomous vehicle industry?

There are at least three key challenges. The first — and this doesn’t get acknowledged enough — is technical: Automated driving systems are not yet demonstrably safer than humans across the full range of driving conditions that humans handle today. The second is related: Developers (and regulators) are still trying to figure out how to actually demonstrate the safety of their systems. This is what I call making the public safety case –and it’s likely to involve data, analysis, standards, simulation, and important incidental innovations. The third challenge involves IP. A range of companies have foundational patents as well as frivolous patents (while startups may have none), and once a company discovers it is losing the race for automated driving, it may want to monetize those patents. A sequel to the smartphone patent wars isn’t inevitable — but it’s worth considering.

How will cybersecurity play into the autonomous vehicle industry in the coming years? Cybersecurity is part of safety — and part of trust. It is a concern for the entire automotive (and information service) sectors, not just automated driving. I imagine a pyramid of fear — Sadly, the public won’t care much about the 40,000 people who will die on the roads this year, largely through human error. The public will care much more about a fatal crash of an automated vehicle, even though these vehicles are likely to be much safer. And the public could freak out about a fatality caused by deliberate malicious hacking, even though — or perhaps because — this would be so anomalous. Developers and regulators need to address — and contextualize — these concerns.

What are the next steps in the development of federal and state regulations in the self-driving industry?

Federally, we’ll probably see legislation to address some issues that NHTSA cannot — or at least cannot quickly. The agency’s 15-point assessment letter is a great way to foster innovation, creativity, competition, and even collaboration in terms of demonstrating vehicle performance. In fact, this letter could be very similar to the public safety case that I have long advocated. At the state level, we’ll continue to see a variety of approaches — from concluding that existing law is sufficient to specifically accommodating particular developers’ visions for automated driving. This kind of variety is actually a good thing, because it helps to advance the public conversation. At the same time, the Uniform Law Commission is embarking on a multiyear effort to draft a uniform state law that, in its own way, should also help this conversation. Municipalities are also going to play an increasingly important role as hosts to pilot projects.

How did you initially get involved in this industry and what do you love about it?

I’m trained as a lawyer and an engineer, and I work as a professor. My interest is in what I call the “law of the newly possible” — how law affects technology and technology affects law. Automated driving is a fantastic case study for this, but it’s also a tremendous opportunity to benefit society through increased safety, mobility, opportunity, and sustainability — if we do it right. This is my message for all the tremendous technological change that we’ll experience in the next few years, of which automated driving is just one part: Imagine a better world, and then decide how to use both technology and policy to get us there.