Podcast Transcript: The Legal Impact of Autonomous Vehicle Connectivity with Neal Walters of Ballard Spahr

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Hello and welcome to The Legal Executive Institute podcast. Today we’re speaking about autonomous vehicles and the legal implications of the connectivity issues with self driving cars. With us today is Joe Rasinski, a legal technologist and futurist for Thompson Reuters Legal. Joe will be speaking to Neal Walters. Neal is the practice leader of Ballard Spahr’s product liability and mass tort group. Neal regularly represents automotive clients in significant class action, and counsels clients on regulatory and risk management issues related to product development. He’s also a frequent presenter on issues surrounding the development of autonomous vehicles. Joe?

Joe Raczynski: Thank you, Gregg. Welcome, Neal. How are you?

Neal Walters: I’m doing great, Joe. Thanks for having me today.

Joe Raczynski: Of course. I’m personally really looking forward to chatting today about the autonomous driving. It’s such a cool space, no question. Our focus today is on the general impact of connectivity operation, which I guess includes several areas, safety and societal benefits, as well as background technology and rule-making efforts. With that as context, I have this vision of a sleek ultra-modern driverless car, with high end pitched sounding electronic whispering flying down the road, but I know that people have a fear of this image, so to speak. What is the safety profile of these autonomous vehicles, in your opinion?

Neal Walters: Well, Joe, you’re right to note the reluctance on the part of consumer expectations. There’s no question it’s gonna take some time to adapt to these vehicles driving themselves, but I think we’ve recognized that with over 35,000 people dying on the highways every year, something had to be done. I think it’s fairly well established that self-driving vehicles will result in far fewer mistakes being made behind the wheel. As you know, machines don’t fall asleep. They don’t text while they drive. And they don’t drink and drive, so that’s a big head start there. But we’re not quite there yet. We’re getting closer to where letting the car do the driving will substantially improve public safety. There is a great deal of validation testing going on right now in various states. But effectively, cars are going to be able to sense their surroundings and provide feedback to a computer that, at the end of the day, is far more consistent in making responsible decisions than people are on a consistent basis.

Joe Raczynski: That makes a lot of sense. It sounds like it will be way safer for everyone. What’s really fascinating, from my opinion, is that I hear a lot about this connectivity aspect of the technology where cars are actually talking with each other. They’re interacting with infrastructure, such as parking lots, even stop signs, and highways themselves. How would that work in the real world?

Neal Walters: Absolutely. Again, it’s gonna take some time. I think one of the benefits is enhanced safety. While it’s helpful that a car can sense its surroundings by the processing and feedback that I mentioned, safety is even further enhanced when vehicles can effectively communicate with one another, and communicate with bridges, on ramps, traffic signals to the extent that they continue to exist, crosswalks. When wireless technology among vehicles and infrastructure is perfected, vehicles will automatically convey to other sources important data about things like speed and direction, and that will allow other vehicles to adjust. The more common example that we think about is the goal to eliminate things like T-bone accidents in which … you know, they’re the most dangerous. In which a car turns left to cross the path of another oncoming vehicle. You can imagine that if a vehicle receives a message about the offending vehicle in advance, the car that’s doing what it’s supposed to do can slow down or take evasive action automatically, and prevent a lot of accidents.

That is a big thing when it comes to this transition that we’re going to enter in the next seven to 10 years, where you’re going to have both automatic driving vehicles on the road with people who are still operating. The self-driving vehicles need to be able to protect themselves against the people making mistakes.

Joe Raczynski: It makes a lot of sense, no question. There’s no doubt that traffic jams and related congestion probably are the biggest time wasters that we face as commuters. How do you see autonomous vehicle technology impacting this, and are there benefits beyond potentially easing that congestion?

autonomous vehicles

Neal Walters of Ballard Spahr

Neal Walters: Well, Joe, I completely agree with you about the importance of this issue. Something beyond safety is just efficiency. And I think this is where big data aggregation may come into play. If you imagine the platform on which systems exist, like Waze and Google Maps, with respect to traffic, you can also imagine that at some point, a vehicle’s going to be able to automatically tap into that data and make decisions for itself about the best route to take. Ultimately, that results in spreading out traffic because, as we know, traffic tends to be bunched during rush hours and at other times. This reduction in traffic is going to lead to an explosion in efficiency. That’s an important thing for time savings and reducing stress. The vehicles may travel more slowly, but that won’t matter if there isn’t any stopping because we may not need traffic signals or stop signs when vehicles communicate with one another.

I’d say the last thing, this isn’t necessarily a connectivity thing, but there will be a substantial benefit to emissions because almost all these vehicles are going to be electric ultimately.

Joe Raczynski: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. It seems like it can have a major impact on that area, no question. One of my favorite areas, I guess, around this is how it actually works, the technology behind it. Jumping into the technology of these autonomous vehicles, including the DSRC, or dedicated short-range communication. We’re also talking about this next-gen 5G network, which is seemingly taking off in many different directions. Briefly, how will these technologies work and where are we in the process of implementing them?

Neal Walters: Interesting question. I think that there are many technology providers that are ready to implement DSRC. Basically, what we’re talking about, we all know that telematics exists substantially in vehicles right now. We’re just gonna take it to the next level and open up a network that is going to provide much more free and robust communication. General Motors has been one of the first to implement this technology when, earlier this year, it used DSRC on a 2017 CTS. That technology enables vehicles to send alerts to other cars up to 1000 feet away. And as I said previously, that helps vehicles automatically detect things, like road hazard, hard braking in lead cars, icy road conditions, broken down vehicles, you name it. But at this stage, as you can imagine, that technology is limited.

Now, that’s the vehicle side. The other side of it, which is at least as important, is the FCC set a frequency, the 5.9 gigahertz is affectionately referred to as 5G, a while ago. And there’s been wrangling over who gets to utilize that new and improved avenue. The auto makers obviously want to use that pursuant to the DOT’s direction, to enhance this new technology, but there are others who want to use it, too. As you can imagine, that dispute is concerning auto makers about interference with those signals, because you just can’t have that with something as important as operating a motor vehicle.

Joe Raczynski: Yeah, that does make sense. Real quick, I was curious, when it comes to the 5G network, do you feel like that has to be in place before these vehicles are really on the road in volumes?

Neal Walters: I do. I also think that it’s gonna take a while before they work through that second aspect of connectivity. It’s important to note that the technology associated with vehicles driving themselves, from an operational standpoint, can be distinguished from adding that extra layer of effectiveness with connectivity. We might be able to wait a bit while the first is worked out, and then see where we are.

Thomson Reuters’ Joe Raczynski

Joe Raczynski: Really interesting. Okay, cool. So naturally, when any new technology comes in, and we’re starting to see this right now with crypto currencies and even AI, at some point, government regulation isn’t too far behind. What has been the legislative response thus far to autonomous vehicle technology, and how do you see this likely to impact the eventual implementation of these types of things?

Neal Walters: Okay, well there we’re talking about two general things. The first, which we’ve been discussing with respect to connectivity, we have the proposed rule making of FMVSS 150 (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 150), which is vehicle-to-vehicle communications. The comment period on that closed earlier in April of this year, and it’s just been sitting there because it’s quite political. I think most believe that that’s gonna lag behind the other legislative responses. On the other side, with the more fundamental operational issues, Congress has been quite active. We all know that the Trump administration issued guidance, which has demonstrated its receptivity to the new technology. The takeaway on the Trump guidance is to provide uniformity, so that states don’t do things like pass laws that are different that prevent trucks from traveling over state borders.

The Congressional response, you know, we have bills sitting there right now in the self-drive act. And it’s expected there should be some type of activity on that this year. I expect it to be baby steps because we have to wait for the technology to catch up, but it’s an exciting time from the regulatory standpoint.

Joe Raczynski: Wow. Okay. That’s helpful to know. Lastly, what can law firms do to prepare to better serve their clients in this space? Do you see this mainly as a cyber security issue? Is this also an IP issue, or just a safety issue?

Neal Walters: Well, there’s no question that we’re ultimately gonna see a substantial cyber security issue. That is probably the biggest threat to connectivity in implementing it with motor vehicles. I’d like to think of what could be monetized in the short term versus a plethora of needs down the road when autonomy is more prevalent. Right now, I think the most imminent legal needs will be in the IP space. As companies start to compete and develop these new technologies, the patent space is going to be very active. I know we’ve done some research there to understand who’s most prevalent with things like artificial intelligence and the interface issues.

Believe it or not, real estate lawyers are also starting to take a big interest in this. I spoke to a group a couple of weeks ago with, if you’re building a new building, do you have to structure it differently? What will be your emphasis on parking, because parking isn’t gonna be as prevalent in 10 years. Access point for deliveries, and things like that. And then finally, I’m a litigator. I think that as we see the transition from level two vehicles that are presently here, to level three, I think litigators and experts have already been addressing more complex technology questions that impact their product liability cases. There may be a couple of additional things on your checklist with reconstruction experts that you’ll have to consider when it comes to how computers and telematics are impacting things.

Joe Raczynski: It seems like it’s gonna touch almost every single practice area in some way, or most at least.

Neal Walters: No question.

Joe Raczynski: This has been fun. Thank you so much for sharing all of your wisdom and expertise here today. I look forward to engaging with more conversations in the future.

Neal Walters: Joe, it’s been my pleasure. Thanks for having me today.

And thank you for listening to The Legal Executive Institute podcast. For more podcasts, go to our website, at www.legalexecutiveinstitute.com.