Are We On the Right Road to Automated Driving?

Our cars are getting smarter. They dictate (and recalculate) directions, sync with our phones, help us park or switch lanes, and brake if we don’t before it’s too late. The fact that more than 70 percent of car buyers prefer vehicles with such advanced, autonomous features indicates a significant shift in the industry. But are we ready to hand over the keys to technology and share the road with self-driving vehicles?

Not so fast, say Bryant Walker Smith and Jeffrey Schnapp, two of the foremost experts in the field. While autonomous vehicles are coming, they won’t succeed until we change our roads, our regulations and our attitudes.

For Smith, a global authority on legal aspects of emerging technologies, self-driving vehicles exemplify the promise and peril of today’s innovation. He sees a future in which these vehicles all but eliminate crashes, transform liability, and make us look back in horror at the risks we once took on the road. But it will be a transition.

“We’ll see a variety of mixing and blending in roads and policies,” explains Smith, a University of South Carolina professor of law and (by courtesy) engineering. “Automation will break down traditional categories. The line between public transportation and private driving will be blurred; likewise, the line between what is a taxi or a rental car will become blended and mixed.”

It won’t happen overnight. Smith predicts we’re about 10 years away from full automation. The technology itself still needs to improve. But collectively, we must also decide how safe is safe enough? And how is safety measured? These are challenging questions that will continue to confront a range of disciplines. Smith is helping all of us – innovators, investors, regulators and everyday drivers – contemplate the answers, while also offering the insights needed to better understand the law and technology relationship, and why it matters.

According to Schnapp, CEO of Piaggio Fast Forward, a startup responding to transportation’s new forms of autonomy, intelligence, sustainability and efficiency, self-driving cars are just the tip of the iceberg – an entry point to the much bigger domain of personal robotics. The critical, and yet unanswered question, is what do we want them to do? He cautions that there are substantial societal, ethical and cultural choices – and consequences – embedded in the tasks we assign to machines.

The technology exists, explains Schnapp, a Harvard professor and founder and faculty director of metaLAB (at) Harvard, a knowledge and technology design studio dedicated to exploring and expanding the frontiers of networked culture. But organizations must learn to navigate the unknowns: Where are the growth markets? What are the models of labor? How can we lead customers to buy into the technology and integrate it into their lives?

Though the road ahead is long and likely bumpy, both Smith and Schnapp are optimistic about the future of automation, but they say it will come with great responsibility.

Stern Strategy Group: