Project Description

Autonomous vehicles will transform
more than transportation

The world of transportation is in flux as autonomous vehicles in all their iterations become part of the mainstream. While most people appreciate the ultimate impact on driving—sit back and enjoy the scenery while your car makes all the tough decisions—few people understand the state of this evolution or the wider impact from new technologies.
To capture a snapshot of the future implications, we asked Don Margolis, an automotive expert and MIT graduate who has researched and published in the field and is often tapped as an expert witness in related court cases. Here are some of his thoughts.

Q: Can you provide some historical perspective on the evolution of autonomous cars?

A: Self-driving cars have been under development since the 1980s. For example, a UC Davis prototype was demoed in 1985. Since that time, many inventors and entrepreneurs have joined in, which has helped ensure robust innovation.
Still, from my perspective, level 5 autonomy (full replacement of a human driver) is 50 years away. However, the Uber model threatens all manufacturers in that fewer cars are needed if any given car is used more efficiently. This is manufacturers’ primary concern now, but innovation is driving sales, as well. For example, driver assistance features will continue to be developed and people will become more and more reliant on these features. Maybe a generation of drivers is already here who do not look over their shoulders when changing lanes.

Q: How will the technological advances surrounding autonomous vehicles influence our day-to-day world—the automobile/trucking industries, the supply chain, traffic laws, our very infrastructure? Will roadways be safer?

A: While level 5 autonomy is a long way off, what is being done in automotive companies, and I have first-hand knowledge, is the development of more sophisticated driver assistance features. Long-haul trucks will probably be first in having a truck drive a long distance in a straight line without driver interference. But there will still be a driver so where is the savings? These systems are going to be hard to sell but there will be inroads. Governments and manufacturers are also collaborating, at various levels, to improve the overall driving experience. For example, there will be smart intersections where communications between the road and the cars will stagger the approach to the intersection allowing throughput increases. Based on current technology, I doubt the United States is going to be the leader in this development.
From a safety perspective, I think the result will be safer roadways but there is long way to go.

Q: How should companies prepare? How can government strike a balance between enough regulation, for reasons of safety, and too much regulation, stifling innovation?

A: Companies are scrambling—trying to shoot at a fast-moving target. All automotive companies must invest in this unknown future in order to avoid being left behind in case it is successful. As a result, every manufacturer has invested in an, often expensive, effort in autonomy. Some do it in-house and others invest in startups.
Governments will always be behind in their input to this future. I don’t think governments will stifle innovation, but they will be behind in pursuing the infrastructure needed to support this future.

Q: What do “lots of players” mean from a patent litigation perspective within emerging technologies?

A: Car-to-car and car-to-road communications is just one example of beneficial technology that will create new legal ramifications. Likewise, algorithm-based functions, such as various driver assists, will provide future benefits but will also complicate the legal landscape. For example, it would be useful for a small car to know it’s driving next to a large pickup truck that doesn’t have the same stopping power. Sensors can provide information like this. Likewise, algorithms that control steering and braking are another example of beneficial technology to improve road safety. But how will we determine what the driver’s intent was when they fail? This will lead to litigation that is potentially different than today’s cases.

Q: Specifically looking at the liability ramifications of autonomous vehicles, what do you see as the biggest issues?

A: For a long time after autonomy becomes common, the owner of the vehicle will still have responsibility for liability. Just as today, the owner is free to pass the blame on to the manufacturer, if the case can be made. And, at that point, the hardware and software providers are all potential targets. In the future-future, when you have your car go pick up a pizza and there is an accident, I have no idea how that will be handled. However, in the near and reasonably distant future there will continue to be a driver (even for long-haul trucks) and that person will be the first bearer of responsibility.

Q: Are current patent laws adequate to handle the new technologies that this transportation revolution promises?

A: I have been involved in a few software-patent issues and they are hard to litigate. There are so many ways to write software that accomplishes the same goal. In one case, I found duplicate lines of code thus making the infringement obvious. But this problem is going to become more difficult to address. I think that patent applications for software will increase, but challenges will continue only if a product is commercially successful, which will definitely apply in the transforming world of autonomous vehicle development.

Q: How important, from a world competitiveness perspective, will it be to get this right?

A: I think it is very important if this technology is successful. As I said before, though, I don’t think the United States will lead. I think China and, perhaps, Korea are going to be leaders with Europe and the United States not too far behind. From my association with the automotive industry. I know China is ahead of the United States in vehicle electrification. Tesla gets a lot of press but really makes very few electric cars. We have lots of startups in the United States that are working on sensors and autonomy but so does China. Additionally, China gets support from government and makes plans for 20 years from now. The end result, in my opinion, is they will be the leaders in future transportation systems.
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