Law Professor Lauds ‘Tremendous’ Potential for Autonomous Vehicles

According to assistant law professor Bryant Walker Smith, driverless cars could significantly reduce traffic fatalities.

by Roddie Burris, The State (Columbia, S.C.) / February 17, 2016
ITS America

(TNS) -- Bryant Walker Smith is an assistant professor of law at the University of South Carolina. The university’s website says he is an internationally recognized expert on the law of self-driving vehicles. He previously led the legal aspects of automated driving program at Stanford University, according to USC.

Smith answered questions about the development of driverless vehicles.

Q. Why is the world exploring and developing automated, or driver-less cars?

A. The potential benefits – while by no means inevitable – are tremendous. Safety: Driving is a leading cause of death in this country, in fact ‘the’ leading cause for young people into their 20s. Mobility: Today’s transportation system is woefully inadequate for people who can’t drive because of age, disability, or income. Efficiency: Today's transportation system also wastes time, space, money, energy, and the environment. Automated driving could help address these problems. And, like past innovations from motor vehicles to the internet, it will create opportunities – and, yes, challenges – that are unimaginable today.

Q. How close are we today to deploying driverless cars on American roadways? How does that compare with other developed nations?

A. That depends on what counts as driverless. A so-called “level 5” car that can drive itself anywhere, anytime is still a long way away. But you can buy a car today that will do a lot of the braking, steering, and accelerating for you — as long as you're ready to step back in when it can't. Meanwhile, truly driverless shuttles carrying passengers at low speeds are going to start appearing in more cities here and abroad. Automated driving involves big multinational companies and small startups as well as developed and developing countries.

Q. How could computers possibly anticipate road situations a driver may have to deal with better than the human that actually encounters any given situation on the road in real time?

A. That's a critical challenge. We become better drivers by practicing, by learning what to expect and how to deal with it. The designers of self-driving vehicles are also learning every day. And – this is the amazing part – the vehicles themselves are learning and, crucially, sharing what they’ve learned. The fact that you drive a lot doesn’t mean that I become a better driver. But one self-driving car can learn from another. That's actually happening. Now, these vehicles will not be perfect. But neither are humans – more than 90 percent of crashes are caused at least in part by human error, including driving aggressively, carelessly, and drunk. Self-driving cars will not drink or text.

Q. What are the major remaining hurdles that must be overcome before this technology becomes a viable feature of road travel in the U.S.?

A. The relevant technologies still need to reach a demonstrated level of socially acceptable risk. This is a really hard problem with technical, legal, and social dimensions. How safe is safe enough? And how do we know that a self-driving vehicle can actually attain that level of safety? These aren't questions that can be answered all at once for all of the 3 trillion vehicle miles that Americans travel every year. That’s why developers are likely to begin with slow speeds, simple environments and supervised operations. Location matters, and some communities will have advanced systems before others. I'm looking for a developer of an automated driving system to publicly and candidly explain how it defines safety, how it measures that safety, and how it will monitor that safety over the lifetime of its system. When that happens, self-driving cars won't be far behind.

Q. What would you like South Carolinians and other Americans to know or be aware of concerning this subject now?

A. Automated driving is about a wide range of technologies, applications, and opportunities. Maybe, instead of flying to Florida, you sleep in your car as it takes you there. Maybe, instead of driving to work, you hop in a driverless car that picks you and a couple of your neighbors up every morning. Maybe, instead of driving to the store, you get your groceries delivered by an automated shuttle. And maybe you decide to walk or bike, because you're more confident that self-driving vehicles will notice you and respect you. This is a key point: Automation might be uncomfortable or even scary in some ways, but we can't forget about today's unacceptable status quo. That's a status quo where every year in this country more people than the entire population of Aiken die on our roads, where 50 times more are injured, and where the mobility needs of many others are simply not being met. We can do better, and technology can help.

©2016 The State (Columbia, S.C.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.