Insight

A Sea Change on Land

Autonomous vehicles will revolutionize almost every area of the law. Here’s a look at what’s rapidly approaching.

Legal Considerations for Autonomous Vehicles
Linda A. Klein

Linda A. Klein and Suneel Gupta

December 10, 2019 08:00 AM

The main question concerning autonomous vehicles is “when,” not “if.” They’re coming. And traversing the on-ramp to Level 5 SAE autonomy will likely put one in mind of the explosion of the internet in the late 1990s. (The Society of Automotive Engineers has established five levels of vehicular autonomy; Level 5, at which the car completely drives itself, is the highest.) The transformation will be fast and furious, so to speak, and the law will have to chase after and catch up.

What will be affected won’t just be one or two obvious areas of the law, such as product liability and regulatory oversight. The impact will be greater than that—which is why our firm, Baker Donelson, has assembled a multidisciplinary team of attorneys to address virtually every legal facet that autonomous vehicles (AVs) will affect. Among them:

Telecom

Next-gen 5G cellular connectivity is just starting to roll out across major U.S. cities. Because AVs will need to “talk” to a variety of infrastructure—traffic lights, toll readers, other vehicles—5G coverage is critical. Current 4G LTE connectivity is simply not fast enough to transmit and receive the massive amount of data necessary to make a system of AVs operable.

Telecoms will need to hasten the rollout of their 5G networks to support AVs and other “Internet of Things” components, all of which will compete for bandwidth. As such, these companies must look beyond their current tower-based coverage models toward distributed networks—which then raises the question of infrastructure itself.

Infrastructure

Government at all levels, from Washington down to local municipalities, will have to work with private companies to build out the infrastructure required for AVs to communicate. There will be antennae everywhere, almost literally—atop streetlights, telephone poles, and traffic signals, even embedded in roads—to ensure no dead zones. Governments simply don’t have the funds to cover this colossal expense. Public-private partnerships make the most sense for this piece of the puzzle, so governments will have to permit such collaboration—and then encourage it.

Automakers will for the first time be sitting on a trove of valuable information with many potential buyers.


Data Privacy and Hacking

AVs are essentially computers on wheels. Even non-autonomous vehicles have been hacked; consider the now-famous example of a Jeep being shut down on a highway in St. Louis (in a controlled experiment, it bears mentioning) in 2015. One of the biggest hurdles for carmakers and component suppliers, then, will be reassuring customers that the vehicles they’re riding in cannot be hacked.

That will require a tight partnership between telecom companies and infrastructure providers, as well as mandates that customers religiously update their cars’ software (preferably over the air, rather than having to bring a vehicle into a dealership).

Data privacy is a second concern. AVs will generate enormous amounts of data about vehicle locations, which creates a golden marketing opportunity. Say you’re in an AV that knows you stop at a certain coffee shop every morning on the way to work. On this day, though, it suggests you stop at a different place, and offers you a $2 coupon. Some might appreciate this; others will surely find it intrusive.

There are implications for the insurance industry as well. Although insurers have tried to lure customers with tracking devices in exchange for discounts (with little success), cars will now themselves generate granular data about time of use, miles driven, routes taken, and more. Will customers want to trade this information for lower premiums?

Automakers, on the other hand, will for the first time be sitting on a trove of valuable information with many potential buyers. Car companies will therefore need easily comprehensible privacy and data-sharing agreements for their customers to opt into or out of.

Real Estate

Beyond the obvious considerations presented by connectivity-boosting antennae in ever more numerous locations, both public and private, in the long term people’s real estate needs will change, and thus so will zoning and land-use laws.

At present, most car owners use their vehicle for only a small portion of the day. Did you drive to work today? If so, what’s your car doing? Sitting in a garage for eight hours or so. As AVs become more popular, the great American tradition of car ownership will dwindle. Autonomous vehicles will likely be owned primarily by large fleet companies and summoned at will—similar to what happens now with car-sharing companies, but with far more availability and consistency.

When fewer people own cars, there will be a greater shift toward drop-off and pickup lanes (like the ride-share lanes increasingly common at airports today), rather than expansive parking lots whose sizes are based on the square footage of the establishment they serve. Parking decks in office buildings and multi-family residential complexes will begin to be repurposed; fewer homes will have a garage. This exciting transformation in land use will be managed largely at the local level, and cities at the forefront will be the first to reap the true benefits of the AV revolution.

Liability

The National Safety Council estimates that in 2018, about 40,000 people died in the U.S. in car accidents, the vast majority of which are caused by human error. Remove the human risk factor, and the incidence of car accidents and deaths will plummet. Until every last AV achieves Level 5—and even after, of course—accidents will occur. While today the question of who or what is liable for a wreck is relatively straightforward, it gets blurry with AVs.

Assume, for instance, that your AV (which you aren’t driving) runs a red light and hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Are you at fault, like a dog owner whose pooch bites the mailman? Is the carmaker? Or is it the Tier 1 supplier of the AV software and components, which the automaker bought off the shelf and installed in its vehicle? What if the car company specified what kind of AV software it wanted, down to the lines of code, and the software developer simply provided it without real-world testing? Right now, in most states, the assignment of liability would be left to the courts, as the federal government hasn’t spoken on the issue.

All these questions, to be worked out in the years ahead, will affect the law in ways great and small. The journey is only beginning—and lawyers who stay keenly attuned to these developments will be best equipped to help provide directions.

Linda Klein is senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson and is a past president of the American Bar Association. She regularly counsels on business dispute prevention and resolution, contract law, professional liability, risk and crisis management, ethics, and governance. She is particularly experienced in advising the construction, pharmaceutical, and higher-education industries.

Neel Gupta represents clients in liability defense and litigation, including trucking/transportation, products liability, premises liability, medical malpractice defense, general property and casualty liability, and insurance litigation. Neel leads Baker Donelson’s autonomous vehicles initiative and is building a multi-disciplinary team to advise OEMs and Tier 1s, as well as insurance companies, telecoms, and other industry players in this evolving field.

photo: ISTOCK.COM/OONAL

Related Articles

Combating Nuclear Verdicts: Empirically Supported Strategies to Deflate the Effects of Anchoring Bias


by Sloan L. Abernathy

Sometimes a verdict can be the difference between amicability and nuclear level developments. But what is anchoring bias and how can strategy combat this?

Lawyer speaking in courtroom with crowd and judge in the foreground

Connecticut Attorney General Releases Status Update on Data Privacy Act


by Gregory Sirico

Connecticut's attorney general recently released a report on the current status of the Data Privacy Act, focusing in on some keys areas of enforcement.

Animated woman's face with code scattered everywhere

Current State of EU to U.S. Data Transfers


by Gregory Sirico

The Biden Administration and European Commission recently came to a principle political agreement concerning the ever-changing future of EU to U.S. data transfers.

New Framework for EU and U.S. Data Transfers

Privacy Practice


by Casey Waughn

Data protection is all the rage among tech companies and state, national (and even transnational) governments alike. Is it a passing fad or here to stay? And how should businesses and groups of all sizes handle compliance with a blizzard of new laws?

Data Protection Prompt New Privacy Laws

Announcing the 7th Annual Women in the Law Publication


by Best Lawyers

The 7th Annual Women in the Law publication is a celebration of all the female legal talent across the country, honoring every woman listed in The Best Lawyers in America and Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America.

Honoring Female Lawyers in the United States

Brick to Click


by Lindsay Mesh Lotito

Trends in commercial real estate have been fast-tracked by the pandemic. Here’s what lenders and borrowers must do to ensure their viability in a rapidly changing world.

Online Shopping Shifts Commercial Real Estate

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers: Real Estate and Infrastructure Publication


by Best Lawyers

Featuring the top legal talent from The Best Lawyers in America, Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch in America and "Lawyer of the Year" recipients for real estate and infrastructure as well as thought leadership from some of the nation's top lawyers.

Real Estate and Infrastructure Publication

All Together With Pride: The Best Lawyers Team Volunteers During Pride Month


by Megan Edmonds

Offering time, muscle power, donations and more, the Best Lawyers team supports local advocacy groups’ events.

The Best Lawyers Team Volunteers During Pride

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in Japan


by Best Lawyers

The results include an elite field of top lawyers and firms.

Announcing the 2022 Best Lawyers in Japan

Hey, Big Lender


by Catherine M. Brennan and Latif Zaman

A contentious proposed federal rule would establish “true lender” guidelines for banks and third parties. Does Colorado show the way forward?

Financial Institution

Guidelines for Acquisitions of Infrastructure Assets


by Posse Herrera Ruiz

A Colombian firm gives merger and acquisition insights to assess risks in the purchase of potentially tainted assets.

Acquisitions of Infrastructure Assets

A Decade of Excellence


by Joseph Begonis

Nine firms weigh in on issues that will shape the legal industry in 2020.

2020 Best Law Firms® "Law Firm of the Year"

A Global Approach to Settlement


by Bradley A. Klein, Gretchen M. Wolf, Mayra C. Suárez and Peter Y. Cheun

The Department of Justice, in pursuit of companies whose transgressions cross borders, increasingly credits other countries’ fines to avoid “piling on.”

A Global Approach to Settlement

The Future of German Technology


by Best Lawyers

How Germany's Law Firm of the Year in Information Technology is leading the way.

Isabell Conrad Schneider Schiffer Weihermulle

Property Rights...and Wrongs


by Chad Cooper and Steven S. Kaufman

Winning a legal battle often boils down to finding and targeting the weakest part of an opponent’s case. Four recent real estate disputes in northeast Ohio are good examples.

Strategies for Real Estate Litigation

Uninsured Flying Objects


by Claire O'Rourke, Laura Beth Cohen and Marialuisa S. Gallozzi

As drones and other “unmanned aerial vehicles” increasingly crowd the skies, the law—and insurance policies—will have to figure out how best to bring them back safely to terra firma.

Insurance Regulations for Drones

Trending Articles

Presenting The Best Lawyers in Australia™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to present The Best Lawyers in Australia for 2025, marking the 17th consecutive year of Best Lawyers awards in Australia.

Australia flag over outline of country

How To Find A Pro Bono Lawyer


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers dives into the vital role pro bono lawyers play in ensuring access to justice for all and the transformative impact they have on communities.

Hands joined around a table with phone, paper, pen and glasses

How Palworld Is Testing the Limits of Nintendo’s Legal Power


by Gregory Sirico

Many are calling the new game Palworld “Pokémon GO with guns,” noting the games striking similarities. Experts speculate how Nintendo could take legal action.

Animated figures with guns stand on top of creatures

Announcing The Best Lawyers in New Zealand™ 2025 Awards


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is announcing the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in New Zealand for 2025, including individual Best Lawyers and "Lawyer of the Year" awards.

New Zealand flag over image of country outline

Legal Distinction on Display: 15th Edition of The Best Lawyers in France™


by Best Lawyers

The industry’s best lawyers and firms working in France are revealed in the newly released, comprehensive the 15th Edition of The Best Lawyers in France™.

French flag in front of country's outline

Announcing The Best Lawyers in Japan™ 2025


by Best Lawyers

For a milestone 15th edition, Best Lawyers is proud to announce The Best Lawyers in Japan.

Japan flag over outline of country

The Best Lawyers in Singapore™ 2025 Edition


by Best Lawyers

For 2025, Best Lawyers presents the most esteemed awards for lawyers and law firms in Singapore.

Singapore flag over outline of country

Announcing the 13th Edition of Best Lawyers Rankings in the United Kingdom


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers is proud to announce the newest edition of legal rankings in the United Kingdom, marking the 13th consecutive edition of awards in the country.

British flag in front of country's outline

Announcing the 16th Edition of the Best Lawyers in Germany Rankings


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers announces the 16th edition of The Best Lawyers in Germany™, featuring a unique set of rankings that highlights Germany's top legal talent.

German flag in front of country's outline

How Much Is a Lawyer Consultation Fee?


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers breaks down the key differences between consultation and retainer fees when hiring an attorney, a crucial first step in the legal process.

Client consulting with lawyer wearing a suit

Presenting the 2024 Best Lawyers Employment and Workers’ Compensation Legal Guide


by Best Lawyers

The 2024 Best Lawyers Employment and Workers' Compensation Legal Guide provides exclusive access to all Best Lawyers awards in related practice areas. Read below and explore the legal guide.

Illustration of several men and women in shades of orange and teal

Things to Do Before a Car Accident Happens to You


by Ellie Shaffer

In a car accident, certain things are beyond the point of no return, while some are well within an individual's control. Here's how to stay legally prepared.

Car dashcam recording street ahead

Celebrating Excellence in Law: 11th Edition of Best Lawyers in Italy™


by Best Lawyers

Best Lawyers announces the 11th edition of The Best Lawyers in Italy™, which features an elite list of awards showcasing Italy's current legal talent.

Italian flag in front of country's outline

Combating Nuclear Verdicts: Empirically Supported Strategies to Deflate the Effects of Anchoring Bias


by Sloan L. Abernathy

Sometimes a verdict can be the difference between amicability and nuclear level developments. But what is anchoring bias and how can strategy combat this?

Lawyer speaking in courtroom with crowd and judge in the foreground

The Push and Pitfalls of New York’s Attempt to Expand Wrongful Death Recovery


by Elizabeth M. Midgley and V. Christopher Potenza

The New York State Legislature recently went about updating certain wrongful death provisions and how they can be carried out in the future. Here's the latest.

Red tape blocking off a section of street

6 Ways a Lawyer Can Help You With Your Medical Malpractice Claim


by Adam Malone

If you believe you have a medical malpractice claim, contact an experienced medical malpractice lawyer. Read on to learn how they can help with your claim.

Doctor in white lab coat showing x-ray to patient in blue scrubs