New technology, new business models and new ways of thinking

Transportation as we know it is changing dramatically.  New technology, new business models and new ways of thinking about how we move are being announced almost daily.  With all this change, come inevitable questions about legality, responsibility, and morality.  Lawyers and policy makers play a leading role in answering these challenging questions.  The newly launched Journal of Law and Mobility, will serve an important role as the leading source for scholarship, commentary, analysis, and information, and enable a meaningful dialogue on a range of mobility topics.

In order to facilitate this needed dialogue, it is important at the outset that we ground ourselves in the terminology used to describe “mobility.”  There are a lot of terms being used by different people in the industry, government and media that can be confusing or ambiguous to those not familiar with the technology.  Terms such as “semi-autonomous,” “highly automated” or “connected and automated vehicles” can describe a wide range of vehicles, from “self-driving cars” that actually have self-driving capability, to cars that are connected and communicating with each other, but have lower levels of automation that provide assistance to drivers.

It is very important that we are clear and concise when having a discussion about mobility, because while there are common issues in each area, there are many unique aspects of each technology that merit different discussion.  Fortunately, we have a framework that helps us have clearer discussion about automated technology, the SAE levels of driving automation.  This document describes 6 levels of automation, from Level 0 – no automation, to Level 5 – full automation, and the responsibilities associated with each level of automation in terms of monitoring and executing the Dynamic Driving Task (DDT).  The SAE taxonomy has become so widespread, that even governmental entities such as the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) and the California Department of Motor Vehicles (CA DMV) are utilizing these levels of automation in their policy statements and rulemaking.

The CA DMV went even further, and specifically regulates the use of certain terminology.  In their Driverless Testing Regulations issued in February, 2016, they specifically require that “no manufacturer or its agents shall represent in any advertising for the sale or lease of a vehicle that a vehicle is autonomous” unless it meets the definition of SAE Levels 3-5.

Lawyers know the importance of words for legal purposes, but terminology is also important for consumers, particularly for building the trust that will be required for successful deployment of self-driving vehicles.  There is already some data suggesting that consumers are confused, for example a finding from an MIT AgeLab survey question that asked respondents if self-driving vehicles are available for purchase today, with nearly 23% saying “yes” – despite the fact that no Level 3 or higher vehicle is actually for sale yet.

NHTSA’s 2017 policy statement addresses this concern, it includes “Consumer Education and Training” as one of the twelve safety design elements of the Voluntary Safety Self-Assessments it suggests that manufacturers complete, citing a need for explicit information on system capabilities to minimize potential risks from user system abuse or misunderstanding.  Legislation that passed the House last year, the SELF DRIVE Act, would take this a step further by mandating that the Department of Transportation (DOT) do research to determine the most effective method and terminology for informing consumers about vehicle automation capabilities and limitations, including the possible use of the SAE levels.

SAE is not the only organization to tackle this problem, there are similar definitions developed in Europe by the German Association of the Automotive Industry (VDA) and the Germany Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt).  Whether we utilize one of these definitional frameworks or not, what is most important is that we are specific about what we are discussing, to enable clear and effective dialogue as we endeavor to solve the important issues ahead.