Author Archive | Bryant Walker Smith, guest-blogging

Looking at My Vehicle Automation Entries in the Rear-View Mirror

Thank you for reading my posts this week. If you happen to be Eugene Volokh or Ken Anderson, thank you in particular for making them possible. And if you were one of my thoughtful commenters, thank you for questioning and challenging; I have read your remarks with great interest.

My goal in these posts was to raise a set of legally relevant issues that have yet to receive sufficient attention in public and academic discussions of vehicle automation: automated shuttles, infrastructure planning, process-based regulation, and product obsolescence.

Critically, these are also issues that matter to the present: Automated shuttles are already available, at least one environmental impact statement has already analyzed automated truck platooning, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is currently drafting rules on self-driving vehicles, and cars with what are considered to be “advanced” driver assistance systems are on the market today. Responsible deployment of automation technologies requires a dialogue between law and engineering, and on these particular issues it is the law’s turn to speak.

Many other technical, legal, and policy issues will also be (gradually and imperfectly) resolved through this iterative process. The wholesale reinvention of our tort system, for example, is probably not necessary for self-driving cars and trucks to (eventually) reach the market. At the same time, however, incrementalism may obscure the evolution of some values, like citizen and consumer privacy, that merit more public attention.

One of the recurrent themes in my posts was the potential for greater centralization: The deployment of centrally managed shuttle fleets, the development of process-based rules that may benefit larger companies, and the continuation of manufacturer control through over-the-air updates could all tend to consolidate rather than disperse power. I understand that technical and political dangers are inherent in this systematic approach, which I shared [...]

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Planning for the Obsolescence of Technologies Not Yet Invented

The automated motor vehicles that I have discussed this week are just one example of the remarkable technologies coming to our roads, skies, homes, and even bodies. A decade from now, we’ll marvel at how advanced these new products are. But a decade after that, we’ll marvel at how anachronistic they have become.

Rapid technological change means that obsolescence is inevitable, and planning for it is as much a safety strategy as a business strategy. Responsible developers and regulators will need to consider the full lifecycle of products long before those products ever reach the market.

Cars of the early 20th Century (JSTOR) were essentially beta products. In 1901, Horseless Age magazine noted that “[i]f a manufacturer finds that the axles of his machine are” breaking, then “the next lot of vehicles are provided with axles of a slightly larger diameter and so on until they begin to stand up pretty well.” In 1910, a GM engineer testifying in MacPherson v. Buick Motor Co. explained that “the only means” for a designer to get information about a vehicle’s performance “is to use the customers, that is to go over the complaint correspondence.”

As I noted yesterday, it is at least conceivable that a similar approach to modern design could counterintuitively end up saving lives by accelerating safety-critical innovation. But even a more cautious approach to product design and deployment is necessarily iterative.

The general bent of incremental innovation is toward greater safety. The electronic stability control now required in new cars, for example, could save thousands of lives a year if deployed fleetwide. But given the slow turnover in cars–the average age of today’s fleet exceeds ten years–reaching saturation could take years.

At the same time, new products can present new dangers. Most of these dangers are [...]

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The Reasonable Self-Driving Car

A common debate in many circles–including the comments on my posts here–is whether legal burdens, technical limitations, or consumer preferences present the greatest immediate obstacle to fully automated motor vehicles. (Fully automated vehicles are capable of driving themselves anywhere a human can. In contrast, the low-speed shuttles from my post on Monday are route-restricted, and the research vehicles that regularly appear in the news are both route-restricted and carefully monitored by safety drivers.)

An entirely correct response is that the technologies necessary for full automation are simply not ready. Engineering challenges will be overcome eventually, but at this point they are varied and very real. If they were not, we would already see fully self-driving cars operating somewhere in our diverse world–in Shanghai or Singapore, Abu Dhabi or Auckland.

The deeper issue, which manifests itself in law, engineering, and economics, is our (imperfect and inconsistent) societal view of what is reasonably safe, because it is this view that determines when a technology is ready in a meaningful sense. Responsible engineers will not approve, responsible companies will not market, responsible regulators will not tolerate, and responsible consumers will not operate vehicles they believe could pose an unreasonable risk to safety.

How safe is safe enough? One answer, that self-driving cars must perform better than human drivers on average, accepts some deaths and injuries that a human could have avoided. Another answer, that self-driving cars must perform at least as well as a perfect human driver for every individual driving maneuver, rejects technologies that, while not perfect, could nonetheless reduce total deaths and injuries. A third answer, that self-driving cars must perform at least as well as corresponding human-vehicle systems, could lock humans into monitoring their machines–a task at which even highly trained airline pilots can occasionally fail due to understimulation [...]

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The Impact of Automation on Environmental Impact Statements

Since the 1950s, the Long Beach Freeway has linked the massive Ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles to, roughly, the rest of the continental United States. Because much has changed in trade and traffic since then, California’s relevant transportation authorities have decided that perhaps this freeway should change as well.

The resulting Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), released in 2012, includes several project alternatives that feature a dedicated four-lane freight corridor for the many trucks that service the ports. In two of these alternatives, all of the trucks on the corridor are assumed to have automated steering, braking, and acceleration that enables them to travel in closely spaced platoons of six to eight vehicles. Smoother flows and lower headways mean higher vehicular capacity.

Automation–or at least automation-related litigation–is coming to an EIS near you.

For a transportation project, automation may be relevant to many of the project alternatives, including the no-build. Potential highway expansions typically use a planning horizon of at least twenty years, and yet several automakers now forecast that they will market vehicles with some kind of advanced automation within a decade. (To put this in slightly more skeptical terms, the self-driving cars that have been twenty years away since the 1930s are now just ten years away.)

As I have argued, the ongoing automation of our transportation system could change land use patterns, increase both travel demand and roadway vehicular capacity, and improve the vehicular level of service at capacity. This means that some of the basic assumptions upon which an EIS’s alternatives analysis is based, like a freeway lane’s theoretical capacity of 2400 vehicles per hour, may be outdated by the time a project alternative is implemented.

In addition, as with the Long Beach Freeway analysis, particular alternatives may involve the automation of vehicles [...]

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Driverless Carts Are Coming Sooner Than Driverless Cars

I’m delighted to be spending this week committing overt acts in furtherance of the Volokh Conspiracy. Since joining Stanford in 2011, I’ve been studying the increasing automation, connectivity, and capability that promise to dramatically change our lives, institutions, and laws. My posts this week will focus on one key example: self-driving vehicles (or whatever you want to call them). The timing is fortuitous, since any remaining legal or technical issues that we fail to collectively solve in the comments section of this blog can be remedied at next week’s U.S. House hearing on “How Autonomous Vehicles Will Shape the Future of Surface Transportation.”

A number of other government bodies are already shaping the legal future of autonomous driving. Nevada, Florida, California, and the District of Columbia have enacted laws expressly regulating these vehicles, California’s Department of Motor Vehicles is currently developing more detailed rules, and a number of other states have considered bills. The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a preliminary policy statement earlier this year, and Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the European Union have also taken initial domestic steps. Meanwhile, parties to the 1949 Geneva and 1968 Vienna Conventions on Road Traffic are discussing how to reconcile language in these treaties with advanced driver assistance systems.

These efforts tend to view vehicle automation as an incremental process in which driving functions are gradually shifted from human drivers to automated driving systems. The taxonomies developed by the German Federal Highway Research Institute, NHTSA, and SAE International’s On-Road Automated Vehicle Standards Committee (on which I serve) are consistent with this view, even if they are not yet entirely consistent with each other. Yesterday’s cars have antilock brakes and electronic stability control, today’s cars are getting adaptive [...]

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