AVT Expo Interview: Understanding the legal implications of ADAS and autonomous vehicles

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Nicholas Wittner MSU

Nicholas Wittner is professor of law in residence at Michigan State University College of Law. He previously served as executive attorney at GM and assistant general counsel at Nissan North America.

Nicholas Wittner, conference chair of the ADAS & AV Legal Issues & Liabilities World Congress, explains the aims of the event and why it is indispensable, not only for lawyers working in the field of AV and ADAS, but for engineers too.

Why do people need to attend the ADAS & AV Legal Issues & Liabilities World Congress?

Before we can even begin to solve all the legal and liability issues associated with automated vehicles, we need to be able to understand them. For lawyers, this program is the finest and most expansive one that addresses the potential legal issues and liability issues associated with advanced automation. An essential part of it is to discuss mitigating liability risks, rather than defending the products once they’re in the field. That is what makes this such an important congress – because we cover virtually every area that could present legal risks, and how to go about reducing or avoiding those risks.

Can you give a run-down of what the program covers?

Product liability, cybersecurity and privacy are obviously at the front of everyone’s minds. Then we have others: criminal liability is something that most people don’t think about in the context of automated vehicles, but it is a major issue. There are also novel questions involving insurance. That’s because there isn’t really any data available for assessing risk and setting rates.

We have new potential business models that we need to deal with, and those present interesting issues. For example, you have Uber – ride hailing – on the one hand and the traditional auto makers and suppliers – who sell to the public – on the other. That presents new issues for liability and corporate legal issues.
Finally, there are regulatory risks with NHTSA. When we talk about this, it’s not just compliance with federal motor vehicle safety standards. For example, it may surprise most people that it’s actually the FTC rather than NHTSA that regulates cybersecurity and privacy because of the data breach laws.

Nevertheless, we will have two former counsels from NHTSA in the program. They will be talking not only about defect investigations, but also about non-compliance investigations and FMVSS (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards) that may serve as impediments to the deployment of these technologies. They will also talk about the risks that are presented and the government policies that address working with manufacturers to reduce those risks.

Jennifer Dukarski 2018

Jennifer Dukarski, shareholder at Butzel Long, will be one of the speakers and will discuss how legal counsel can meet their duties of ethical conduct in advising on emerging automotive technology

Something else that is really great about this program is that the congress is set in Michigan, which is the leading state for the testing and deployment of AVs and ADAS, as well as policy to promote them. That is a critical point, and we will have our Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) representatives explain all the testbeds that we have here and all the testing that is being done. This testing to confirm the safety of these products also plays a major role in the liability risks and is an absolutely key part of this seminar. It’s something that I have never seen in any other program.

But before we even begin to do all that, we need to understand the technology. Many lawyers aren’t fully versed in the technology – I know I’m not, even though I certainly do my best to keep up. This is such a fast-moving, dynamic area that it’s helpful to have a primer on just what ADAS and AV mean, what the technologies are, and how they work.

How is this field evolving?

I teach the liability law that would apply to AVs. In the past, I’ve spoken generally about theories of liability, allegations and defenses. Three to four years ago, this was all still nascent. It’s no longer nascent. We now have real-world incidents and we are going to dissect them and talk about how our current liability laws apply to them, what allegations are being made and what allegations could potentially be made, so that manufacturers understand the means available to them to reduce liability risk.

What is the most important message you want to convey with this congress?

It’s not simply a question of defending these products once in the field. Certainly, we’ve had incidents where there have been claims involving ADAS that have had to be defended. However, the key here is to promote safety and reduce liability. If you promote safety properly – for lawyers that means providing advice, working with the engineers, to ensure the adoption of appropriate designs – you’re going to be saving lives and reducing injuries, and consequently, avoiding liability.

Who is the program for?

This is a legal conference, where you have practicing lawyers and corporate counsel speaking, but also engineers. As such, the congress is mainly aimed at law professionals, but it ought to appeal to engineers too. They’re on the front line of managing legal risks, because they’re the ones developing the products. It all comes back to promoting safety and reducing liability – and the engineers are instrumental in that.


AV ADAS Legal liabilities logoThe ADAS & AV Legal Issues & Liabilities World Congress is hosted at Autonomous Vehicle Technology Expo. Find the full program for the congress, as well as rates and booking instructions on the event website.

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