Cars, In-House Counsel, Technology

Why Driverless Cars Will Wreck Your Legal Practice

First, thanks to Baker & McKenzie, DLA Piper, Latham & Watkins, and Ulmer & Berne, all of whom endured my “book talk” about The Curmudgeon’s Guide To Practicing Law when I was recently back in the States.

Second — and proof that my mind is navigating on its own — I recently paused to think about driverless cars.

I suppose that, if you lived (as I do) in a major city that may be road-testing driverless cars before January, you’d be curious about these vehicles, too. (You’d want to consider, for example, whether you should stay on the sidewalk, even if that means walking endlessly in a one-block circle for the rest of your life.)

And if you labored (as I do) in the insurance (or insurance brokerage) space, you’d be scratching your head about what might happen to your industry if billions of dollars of auto insurance premium vanished (or was spent by people other than drivers) overnight. Lawyers for insurers should be thinking about driverless cars.

So, too, should lawyers outside the insurance space. Do you do DWI defense work? Your practice area may not exist in ten years. Do you participate in automotive accident or product liability cases? The world may be about to shift under your feet.

And I’m just getting warmed up here. . . .

Think about how driverless cars will affect our lives outside of the law.

Do you drive a taxi? Not in a world of driverless cars, you don’t.

Chauffeur? Same deal.

Do you teach at a driving instruction school? Work for the government in a driver’s license department? These careers may soon go the way of the sundial, the high-wheeled bicycle, and the instruction manual to the computer you used six months ago.

Are you a first responder to accidents? I don’t know if it’s you or your co-worker who’s about to get laid off, but there may soon be far fewer jobs in your field.

Do you work in (or support) the auto industry?

You’re in for a breathtaking change. Many families now own more than one car, to satisfy the needs of two working spouses and a teenager or two. When a single car can drop one person off at work, and then drive home to drop off the next person, and then shuttle the kids to school and after-school events, and then pick up the parents at the end of the day, demand for cars may plummet. One car may provide ample transportation for not just one family, but several.

Even mass transit may change. The average family car today spends 98 percent of its time parked. If those cars could instead be shuttling folks around town, the price per trip would drop dramatically. An awful lot of people might be commuting by driverless car ten years from now instead of using today’s buses or trains.

And what about governments that are currently thinking of investing billions of dollars in high-speed rail lines that won’t be operational for another 20 or 30 years? If driverless cars of the future are motoring along at the same rate as high-speed trains, not too many folks will be opting to travel by rail. Governments may be sinking tens of billions of dollars into infrastructure that will be obsolete before it’s built.

Law enforcement (and the converse — criminality) may be transformed. Can driverless cars be hacked to make kidnapping much simpler? Or packed with explosives to be turned into self-guided bombs? Or simply used as high-speed getaways cars, which will permit the bad guys to shoot at the police while the car navigates its high-speed escape? (To avoid these problems, will we relinquish our right to privacy, permitting our cars to be monitored and our locations always known?)

Needless to say, driverless cars will transport product liability law into a brave new world. Let’s assume that driverless cars are remarkably safe: Instead of the 30,000+ people who now die annually in car accidents in the United States, suppose driverless cars result in a mere 10,000 deaths every year. And assume that the public accepts — as logic dictates, but emotion may not — that saving 20,000 lives per year is an improvement, so driverless cars should be endorsed. Who would bear the cost of those 10,000 fatal accidents? Vehicle owners? Or users? Or manufacturers?

Can we blame the mechanic who repaired a driverless car a few weeks before the crash? Or the hobbyist who got under the hood of his car and tinkered with it?

A future that seemed very distant just a couple of decades ago now feels as though it’s almost upon us. Entrepreneurs, including those with law degrees, can probably get ahead of this curve and profit as society rounds the bend.

I’m willing to bet that the legal profession, too, will undergo a technological revolution within the next 20 years. (I’m now receiving promotional materials from companies designing intelligent computers that will review massive databases and answer questions posed in plain English about those documents.) Far-sighted lawyers and firms will thrive in that new world. I wonder how many of today’s leading law firms are even thinking about that future.

Mark Herrmann is the Chief Counsel – Litigation and Global Chief Compliance Officer at Aon, the world’s leading provider of risk management services, insurance and reinsurance brokerage, and human capital and management consulting. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Inside Straight: Advice About Lawyering, In-House And Out, That Only The Internet Could Provide (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at

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