On Governmental Regulation of Self Driving Cars

May 31st, 2013

Autonomous cars are not-so-slowly making their ways to a driveway near you. Regulators have been taking a relatively proactive view towards this emerging technology, recognizing that though they may pose some risks,they also hold the potential to make the roads much safer.

On Thursday, the Transportation Department made its first formal policy statement on autonomous vehicles. In a nonbinding recommendation to the states, it said that driverless cars should not yet be allowed, except for testing. But it said that semiautonomous features, like cars that keep themselves centered in lanes and adjust their speed based on the location of the car ahead, could save lives.

The position of the government, however, seems to be one geared towards nurturing in this new technology, with an eye towards improving the public welfare:

The statement detailed the benefits of self-driving and semiautonomous cars, which analysts said was a recognition by government officials that it had no choice but to keep up with the advancing technology in this area, which falls on a continuum from cruise control to full automation.

“It’s not that they’re trying to put the brakes on it,” said Richard Wallace, director of transportation systems analysis at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich. “They’re trying to get out in front of it.”

Still, the highway safety agency was careful to address the tension between technology and regulation.

“Any potential regulatory action must appropriately balance the need to ensure motor vehicle safety with the flexibility to innovate,” it said.

The Times also quotes my friend Ryan Calo, who is a leading expert in this field. Ryan observes that because the automotive industry is so heavily regulated, vehicle-technology cannot innovate at the same pace as other types of technology.

Even though technology companies like Google generally fear that innovation far outpaces regulation and risks being stifled by it, it has a different approach with cars than with software or cellphones because cars have been heavily regulated for decades, said Ryan Calo, a law professor at the University of Washington who co-founded the Legal Aspects of Autonomous Driving center at Stanford.

“We want to have some experimentation in the states to see what works, but it’s nice to have federal experts helping out, as long as they don’t take it too far,” he said.

I think we will see similar dynamics in the legal market, as new forms of technology will soon be able to deliver legal services in unconventional means (without lawyers). There will be, of course, concern to make sure that these services actually give good legal advice. I hope that there are enough people in state bars to value the countervailing interest–that these technologies can bring legal services to large, underserved portions of the population. However, I am more skeptical. Lawyers, as a bunch, tend to resist change–especially the type of change that can take away their business. Watching other emerging tech fields deal with long-standing regulations may offer a preview of sorts of the process that lies ahead for legal informatics.