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An End to Traffic Jams Forever

In 1948, renowned New York urban planner, Robert Moses, proclaimed, “We’re well underway to solving the traffic problem.”

Shortly afterwards, the United States built expansive highways and bridges as part of President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.

Job done, right?

Well, let me ask you this: How was your commute today?

Despite Mr. Moses’ bold declaration, we’re about as close to “solving the traffic problem” today as we were back in 1948. Which is to say, we’re not close at all.

So what is the solution?

Well, it doesn’t involve building more roads and bridges. In fact, it doesn’t even involve humans.

We’re talking about driverless cars.

A world where humans are out of the equation – and in today’s increasingly connected climate, cars take over.

Using radar, cameras, GPS, sensors and wireless technology, cars will be able to “talk” to each other and navigate safely by knowing where they are in relation to other vehicles. And connectivity will mean they can communicate with objects like traffic lights, too.

Result? Smoother traffic flow, an end to traffic jams and greater safety, as it would eliminate the frustration and dangerous driving that’s often triggered by sitting in heavy congestion for ages.

The problem?

While it’s easy to get lost in new, potentially life-changing technologies, we seldom think about what needs to happen behind the scenes to bring that technology to the market.

And the truth is, lawmakers have a huge impact on innovation.

So when I received an invitation to the recent Georgetown Law Symposium: Law in an Age of Disruptive Technology – it was a no-brainer to attend.

The conference brought together some of America’s leading lawmakers and lawyers to discuss ongoing regulatory efforts in areas like 3-D printing, mass surveillance and driverless cars…

Fewer Drivers = More Regulation

As advances in automation and robotics continue, Google (GOOG) and several automakers, including Volvo (VOLVY), Daimler (DDAIY), BMW and Audi, are already testing automated cars.

But for driverless cars to become a reality, we need to figure out regulatory issues. As Daimler’s Head of Development, Thomas Weber, says, “Of course, we have to discuss [driverless cars] with regulators around the world. Based on current rules, we cannot go autonomously.”

So it was intriguing to hear policy and automation expert, Bryant Walker Smith, at the Georgetown symposium. Smith is a fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center on Internet and Society (CIS) and the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS). He talked about the automated vehicle debate currently underway in Washington and how self-driving cars can be lawfully sold and used on U.S. roads.

He outlined a couple of major gaps in driverless car regulation…

  1. Human Obligation: There’s no clear definition of the legal obligations for an automated vehicle’s human “operator.” For example, what level of vigilance will they have to maintain while “not driving”? And what can they do/not do in an automated vehicle?
  2. Manufacturer Liability: Except in cases of mechanical error, current auto liability rests with owners and drivers of vehicles. But with driverless cars, liability will have to shift more to manufacturers. And it will need to be clearly defined, so there’s no uncertainty for manufacturers about their technical, legal and reputational risks.

So what changes are we looking at?

How Driverless Technology Will Shift Liability

In today’s connected world, cars aren’t “just cars” anymore. People are getting more interactive with their vehicles.

And as technology advances towards driverless automation, that relationship will get closer.

It also means automakers’ obligations will expand into something much more comprehensive for people with driverless cars. Something that will differ markedly from today’s standard.

In Today’s World: Most consumer complaints fall into two categories – product liability and warranty issues. And companies have tried-and-tested ways of covering their rear-ends in terms of liability.

For example, with breakages or design flaws, auto manufacturers can claim that the product/technology was state of the art when developed and in line with “industry standards.” They can cite natural wear and tear. Or even blame the consumer for misuse.

And with warranties, manufacturers can fall back on standard disclaimers and say that they couldn’t have anticipated every issue, or their customers’ expectations. Again, they could pass blame to the user.

In Tomorrow’s World: Working in a connected, automated, driverless car world, companies will be able to remotely monitor and update their technology – and old liability rules will change.

For example, “state of the art” technology will last much longer, as it will be much easier to update automated, driverless software, rather than the whole vehicle itself. So the proper comparison won’t be to the year of manufacturing, but to the time of the last update.

Plus, companies will have less wiggle room with flaws and malfunctions, as they’ll constantly be monitoring the systems and data.

There are still variables, though…

Pay-As-You-Drive

For example, what if a manufacturer stops supporting an automation system?

One solution is to transform the driverless concept into a subscription-based model.

In other words, the idea that you don’t have a car – you have a “service” that you’re subscribing to.

That way, whenever an automation technology becomes obsolete, or doesn’t meet current roadworthiness standards, it could simply be retired from service and customers would be required to update the system, rather than the entire car.

Ultimately, there’s a way to go before driverless car technology hits the mainstream. Both in terms of perfecting the technology itself and the regulations controlling it.

But with the technology making manufacturers work more closely with their vehicles and knowing more about their customers, it can play a bigger role in reducing road congestion and risks.

Your eyes in the Pipeline,

Marty Biancuzzo

Marty Biancuzzo

, Technology Analyst

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