Thanks to Stanford CIS and CAR fellow Bryant Walker Smith for guest-posting here at Volokh Conspiracy last week on driverless car technologies. You can read his posts on driverless carts as a sort of closed course for introducing driverless vehicles; the impact of automation technologies, including driverless cars, on transportation infrastructure and environmental planning issues; standards of “reasonableness” in assessing the safety and liability of self-driving cars; how to plan for a mix of technologies and varying degrees of advanced capabilities in a road system with increasing numbers of self-driving cars, including the possibility of planning for obsolescence; and a final post observing that, in the dialogue between engineering and law, it is law’s turn to speak and lay down some essential markers.
Thanks to shout-outs from readers who contacted me directly – mostly to tell me that it is helpful to hear from someone with expertise and the willingness to be cautious about the technological directions, both as a matter of predictions as well as normative judgments about the right or wrong way to approach this new technological future. While some commenters were a bit frustrated at Bryant’s caution in making sweeping or categorical responses or engaging the many widely discussed dilemmas that these new technologies might raise, in favor of a much more careful and cautious approach to the many unsettled questions of design and regulation, this caution is what I most often hear expressed by people directly engaged in addressing these questions as policy.
Bryant’s posts also located driverless car technologies in the larger framework of transportation infrastructure; the road system, its use by emerging technologies and impacts on it, as well as other transportation infrastructure such as mass transportation. Even if one believes the right policy is simply to let the technological path go as people are willing to adopt it, and don’t worry about the rest of the infrastructure and impacts on it – whether bus systems or subways or trains, for example – that’s still a choice, and one with real consequences. Maybe good ones on balance, but maybe not, and the sensible thing to ask what they might be. But it is striking how rarely discussions in the press ever reach interrelationships and interactions with the rest of the surface transportation infrastructure (everything from maintenance and repair to capital investment), and it was useful to have Bryant’s discussion about environmental planning in relation to driverless cars. That’s so whether one is trying to figure the best, or merely a good, answer, or whether one’s interest is strictly strategic, in the sense of trying to anticipate the lawsuits that are likely to come. Public discussion is already well aware of liability concerns, but Bryant’s post on infrastructure draws our attention to the possibility of fights over environmental impacts of these technologies.
My own takeaway is that driverless car technologies and their place in our future are intertwined with the larger transportation infrastructure, far more deeply than I would have realized in my general enthusiasm for these vehicle technologies; and that the technological future still has many contingent paths and the basic regulatory frameworks likewise. Again, our thanks to Bryant for posting with us this past week. I’ll continue to flag issues related to driving automation technologies from time to time here at Volokh.