The future of driverless cars rests on the government taking initiative
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Looking toward the future of “driverless technology,” many envision robot cars acting as chauffeurs during the daily commute, allowing passengers to relax or be more productive on their way to work. However, that reality is still a long way off.

To get there, industry, the scientific community and the government will have to expend tremendous resources and, more generally, society will have to adapt and relinquish some privacy and control. However, the end result will be a safer, more efficient transportation system less burdened by the need for human oversight.

The industries that will adapt, of course, include the automotive industry and those that form the country’s mobility infrastructure such as transportation and technology. These industries are already building out the driverless platform, and cars are morphing into robots. Some vehicles already in the public domain have automated braking with adjustable speed control as well as lane centering and lane changing. Traditional auto manufacturers are vigorously testing highly automated vehicles (HAVs) in real-world environments.


Along with auto manufacturers, the technology sector has played a significant role in this transformation. Ironically, the technology sector, which is helping to transform automobiles into robots, is itself now poised to consume huge sectors of the automotive industry. Google’s efforts are already well-known, and Tesla’s vehicles are mobile computers without a Detroit powertrain. The worst kept secret is Apple’s expansion from smartphones into the automotive sector. Following suit, it was recently announced that Samsung received approval to test its self-driving technology in South Korea.


In a related area, infrastructure will be dramatically transformed to accommodate “connected” vehicles. The federal government is in the process of finalizing standards on Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC). Early in the next decade, autos and trucks will be equipped with communication devices that emit and receive data.

The United States is currently burdened with 300,000 light-controlled intersections, most of which could and should be equipped with the corresponding DSRC devices. As a result, vehicles will be better able to sense other vehicles and warn drivers of unsafe conditions.

“Connected” cars will also be able to communicate with traffic control systems. As a result, intersections will be more efficient and safer. In addition, personal mobile devices will be armed with DSRC applications and those devices and connected cars will be in constant communication significantly increasing the safety of pedestrians. And the connected technology will interact with the automated driving technology to create the synergy of "connected and automated vehicles" (CAVs).

Other downstream industries also will be affected by these developments. First, the insurance sector will have to adapt. Safer driving environments will impact premiums but artificial intelligence will lead to new risks and open new lines of exposure to underwrite. The legal industry and the judicial system will have to adjust as the frequency of automobile accidents lessens.

The U.S. legal system always lags behind technology, and many of the cases long relied on to resolve disputes will become quaint memories only referenced as part of our jurisprudence history much like the 1928 case Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad. Commercial transportation is bracing for significant disruption. Cab drivers face the real prospect of competing with vehicles operated only by technology and commercial cargo will be transported by trucks driven by automated technology with several trucks being "driven" as truck trains, ten vehicles long.

The federal government has a crucial role, which it will struggle to grow into. The regulatory scheme for automotive vehicles comes under the auspices of the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, but their authority to oversee these emerging technologies will have to evolve.The federal government has a limited oversight role in the adoption of necessary traffic and driving standards. The states have that regulatory authority, but what is emerging is a patchwork of laws. These laws are inconsistent with each other, and some states are struggling to create technically sound processes and terms.

Some newly created state laws are using technically obsolete terms like “autonomous.” First and foremost, the federal government needs to create sound policies which weigh the relative needs and risks of society. The creation of a new, modern transportation system will result in many winners and losers, and will be debated in a politically charged environment.

While the federal government’s efforts of late have been laudable, much work needs to be done. Obviously, the strategies will flow from the policies that are adopted, and the tactics for implementation will need to survive any politically charged atmosphere. The federal government will need to be creative and lead where it does not have legal authority, such as addressing the emerging patchwork of state-based laws.

This patchwork is already starting to impede some improvement in the transportation sector because of the legal uncertainties and inconsistent laws among states. This problem needs to be addressed in order to create an environment that fosters connected and automated vehicles. Literally, thousands of lives could be saved each year with the use of “driverless” technology, along with other dramatic improvements, such as those chauffeured, stress-free commutes.

Michael R. Nelson is a partner at Eversheds Sutherland (US) LLP in New York, where he represents publicly traded companies and privately held corporations in complex business litigation and regulatory matters.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.