Driverless Vehicles Driving Law Firm Expansion

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By Joyce E. Cutler

Feb. 16 — Law firms are expanding their practices to include autonomous vehicles as companies, governments and their lawyers gear up for driverless vehicles to take to the roads, attorneys told Bloomberg BNA.

Autonomous vehicles implicate intellectual property, insurance, product liability, regulatory, privacy, security, environment and energy issues where expertise is needed. And all those issues carry an increased likelihood for litigation and regulation.

“Though they may not yet be aware of it, there’s a whole range of lawyers out there who are going to find with a little bit of getting up to speed, their current expertise is transferrable to the world of autonomous vehicles,” Hilary Rowen, a partner with Sedgwick LLP in San Francisco, said.

It all has to do with the “seismic shift happening with artificial intelligence and technology,” Paul Hastings LLP's Bradford Newman said.

Building an Evolutionary Practice

Paul Hastings earlier this month launched an interdisciplinary Internet of Things practice. Morrison & Foerster LLP’s autonomous systems and robotics practice builds on its drone practice launched last year.

“I think if each of us in our own legal disciplines know what is happening to other legal disciplines regarding autonomous, we’re going to be that much smarter” and better for clients, said John Wechkin, a partner with Seattle's Perkins Coie LLP, which has an unmanned vehicle systems practice.

Whether highways in the sky, highways on earth or submarine navigation, “it really implicates strongly the full suite of technology-focused practice areas,” Christopher J. Carr, a MoFo partner in San Francisco, said. “That’s why we said it’s a natural evolution.”

“Watching it play out in the drone space has reinforced just how critical that sort of wide spectrum of experience, how important that is,” William O’Connor, MoFo partner in San Diego, said.

The expansion comes as the National Highway Transportation Administration ruled Feb. 9 that Google Inc.’s artificial-intelligence system will be interpreted as a driver . Manufacturers including Tesla Motors Inc., Delphi Automotive Plc and General Motors Co. invest in automated vehicle technology. President Barack Obama also is expected to request $4 billion in his 2017 budget proposal to test driverless cars over the next 10 years .

Think of cars with their many components and moving parts that would be attached to an autonomous car, and it’s a much larger universe of interested players than entities seeking legal advice, said Gerald F. Murphy, a partner with Crowell & Moring LLP in Washington, D.C., which is building on its drone practice. “Generally speaking it really is going to be the entire automotive supply chain,” Murphy said.

“There may be only a handful of companies that make cars,” so firms will “see a mix of traditional players and the upstarts,” he said.

Steady Work Stream for Lawyers

“I think California will probably be the first state to allow this technology to be rolled out on a somewhat regular basis,” Murphy said.

Google’s autonomous vehicles regularly roam San Francisco Bay Area freeways and even have a spot inside the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., just down the road from Google’s headquarters.

Google, Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla, BMW AG, Mercedes-Benz, Honda Motor Co., Volkswagen AG and Ford Motor Co. are among 11 companies that have autonomous-vehicle testing permits, according to December data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles. Even Apple Inc. may be working on a driverless-car project .

Silicon Valley is becoming the new Detroit,” Newman said.

Innovation = Legal Opportunity

Regulations and litigation will arise over interpreting who is in control, the attorneys said. Novel insurance issues include how to use the driver’s driving record to set the premium when the software is really driving the car, and who is at fault in the case of an accident, Rowen said.

“Anytime you see this kind of innovation, you see an increase in the sorts of issues that lawyers and law firms get involved in because you’re going to have new causation issues, regulatory issues,” Rowen said.

“Whether it’s trade secret to patent,” Newman said, “we’re going to see increased litigation in this space. I don’t know how you’re going to stop that.”

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To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joseph Wright at