Seminar examined legal issues and challenges surrounding driverless cars


By Steve Thorpe

Legal News

Trying to pin down the issues and solutions on driverless cars is like driving through a strange city with no street signs.

“There are lots of questions. There are more questions every day,” said Emily Frascaroli, counsel for Ford Motor Company and one of their lead lawyers on the issue.

Not only are questions often hard to answer, but tomorrow you’ll be faced with a whole new set of questions.

“Just in the nine months we’ve been looking at these issues, we’ve struggled to find a static set of facts, which we could apply to law,” said Bryce Pilz, U-M clinical assistant law professor and a member of the University of Michigan’s Mobil-ity Transformation Center. “Things are moving so quickly that everything we say today may shift tomorrow.”

They were two of the panelists in the presentation “Autonomous Vehicles Are Coming: Opportunities And Challenges” held March 2, at Automation Alley in Troy. The four-hour seminar, co-hosted by the Oakland County Bar Asso-ciation, Miller Canfield, and Oakland County’s Automation Alley, examined the issues and challenges of self-driving cars. 

Kirk Steudle, director of the Michigan Department of Trans-portation in Lansing, was also on the panel, along with Carrie Morton, deputy director of U-M Mobility Transformation Cen-ter; Richard Walawender, corporate group co-leader and director of the International Practice and Automotive Practice Groups, Miller Canfield; Tom Kelly, COO and director of Entrepreneurship, Automation Alley; and Matt Gibb, deputy Oakland County executive. Each participant spoke for about 30 minutes and then all joined into a panel to field questions from attendees.

Topics covered included:

•The present and future state of Autonomous Vehicle technology and development.

•Current public-private initiatives in helping development of AVs.

• Issues related to legal liability.

• How local startups can participate.

• How Southeast Michigan can be a leader in development of the AV industry.

• How local government can get involved to encourage growth in this industry.

• Franchising and regulating shared mobility providers of AVs.

• Regulating vehicle to infrastructure (V2I) connectivity.

An incredibly complex web of software, hardware, highway infrastructure, law, governmental cooperation and public acceptance will be necessary if autonomous vehicles are to become a reality. A lot of those things are advancing rapidly, but much still needs to be done.

Industry is doing its part and some of the most high-profile work is occurring on the West Coast. Michigan is in the fray, though, and the Big Three and major suppliers are hard at work making the concept a reality.

“Ford has been focused on automated vehicles for more than a decade,” said Frascaroli. “We’re really excited about all the research, dialogue and cooperation by various stakeholders and the industry.”

In addition to the technology required, an autonomous vehicle infrastructure will require a massive overhaul of laws at both the state and federal level. The complexity of that effort can be daunting.

“Why are so many lawyers involved in this technological development? This paradigm change?” asked Richard Walawender, senior principal and AV Practice Group Leader at Miller Canfield. “Never underestimate the ability of lawyers to overcomplicate things and throw a wrench in it.”

He joked about the explosion of legal complexity, but it provides both challenges and opportunities for attorneys and lawmakers.

“Not surprisingly, the laws in most states don’t mention driverless cars,” said Frascaroli. “And, until recently, it wasn’t even a topic of discussion. Most states that are now looking at it are receptive to having automated vehicles in their states. Many of the states are doing their best to encourage innovation in autonomous vehicles and are trying to make them safe.“

One of the areas of consensus among the experts is that managing the burgeoning system and applying consistent rules across all 50 states will be one of the absolute requirements.

“There’s going to be some entity — whether government, public/private or private industry — involved in managing this system,” Pilz said. “NHTSA has said it believes it should be private entities. It’s a complicated, highly-integrated system with at least some of the players involved in managing it.”

And, shades of “Robocop,” there will have to be a digital monitor to spot autonomous vehicles that aren’t behaving themselves.

“One of the questions is how do you revoke the credentials from a vehicle if it is malfunctioning or is a ‘bad actor’?” asked Pilz. “The system only works if you know that all the vehicles in it are sending legitimate signals several times every second.”