Detroit-based law firm Honigman Miller Schwartz and Cohn LLP recently launched a formal practice group focusing on the rapidly growing autonomous vehicle industry. The firm, which maintains offices in Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo and Lansing, recently hired Steve Wernikoff to co-chair the practice with Tom Appledorn, a partner in the firm’s intellectual property group. Wernikoff formerly served as an enforcement director for the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Technology Research and Investigation. MiBiz spoke with Wernikoff and Appledorn about the firm’s goals with the new practice group, the matters it plans to work on and the future of autonomous vehicle technology.
What inspired Honigman to formally create this industry group?
APPLEDORN: Really what inspired us was Steve coming on board. He brings a wealth of information from his time at the FTC. We have organically worked in the regulatory space, the business space, the legal space, and it just seems like a great time to broadcast our rounded-out abilities in those areas.
WERNIKOFF: Honigman made a lot of sense for me because the firm has been at the forefront on these issues and has been working with clients on these issues for a long time. We have a deep experience in the traditional automotive industry, a wealth of experience with these technologies and so the firm has a tremendous amount of insight into what really is a revolution in the automotive industry.
What does this formal structure allow you to do now?
WERNIKOFF: There’s been an organic nature to the work. Now, this formalizes the process a little more and we’re able to take steps now to make things a little more formal and communicate to the public that it’s a formal practice group and that we can provide services in a number of areas.
Do you plan to focus the practice on any types of companies in particular?
WERNIKOFF: I think it’s all of the above. One of the interesting things about autonomous vehicle technology is that it’s not just the cars. Now it’s an entire infrastructure that’s growing out of autonomous vehicle technology. We’re prepared to be dealing with the traditional automotive industry, but we’re also prepared to be talking to technology companies and startups because they’re all part of the ecosystem.
In the short term, what sort of issues do you think you’ll be helping clients navigate?
APPLEDORN: My I.P. team does quite a bit of procurement — copyright procurement, trademark procurement and clearance. (We make) sure that when we introduce technologies, not only is our technology protected, but our clients like to make sure they’re not going to be encumbered to roll out a product that might be protected by some third-party patent or other form of I.P. protection.
Can’t those services be had at any I.P.-minded firm? What sets this practice apart?
APPLEDORN: At the same time I’m looking at the technology and the investments, I’m thinking about my colleague Steve, who has the data and cybersecurity background. As I’m learning about the technologies that the clients are investing in and thinking about how they might be encumbered from an I.P. standpoint, I’m also thinking about and pointing out issues with respect to how information is collected, who owns the information, how it’s stored, etc.
WERNIKOFF: I think there are very few firms that have that sort of rooted experience in this industry that you can reach back on and start making these forward decisions.
Does Honigman plan to weigh into the ongoing discussions about how to regulate autonomous vehicles, given those discussions lag behind the actual technological development?
WERNIKOFF: It’s certainly possible to the extent that there is a lot of work in this area. One of the first things that regulators need to do is to ensure that these vehicles can actually be tested. Because one of the first things that companies realized is that we can’t put these cars actually on the road to try to make them safer because it’s illegal to have a vehicle on the road without a driver or a steering wheel. All of these regulations are coming on very quickly, and as regulators attempt to put out these regulations for safety purposes, there are additional privacy issues that are also thought about. There’s a tremendous amount of regulatory interest and involvement. It’s likely that Honigman will weigh in, either on behalf of clients or otherwise, to be part of the conversation.
What are some examples of problems on the security side?
WERNIKOFF: I’ve seen some people describe autonomous vehicles as rolling living rooms now. There’s much more technology — not just on-board diagnostics, but many more sensors to promote safety, more entertainment connectivity and more Wi-Fi. All of those things are generating increased data. Some of that data is highly personal and sensitive, like geolocation data or content of communications that are connected through their phones. The vehicle attack surface becomes larger and more complex. There are more communications pathways into the vehicle (and) more lines of code. There’s a lot of discussions and frankly work that needs to be done at the beginning for companies, before they build out these products, to think about these issues like privacy and security.
Does that commitment to cybersecurity filter all the way down the supply chain to small manufacturers involved with autonomous cars?
WERNIKOFF: That’s exactly right. You also have to think about the issue of updating. How many consumers get recalls for hard versions of parts? Is there an efficient way to ensure that the vehicle software will get updated as it becomes more and more important?
When do you expect to see fleets of autonomous vehicles on city streets?
WERNIKOFF: I’m bad with predictions. It’s going to happen.
Is it something that just can’t be predicted at this point?
APPLEDORN: There are so many factors that are going into that calculus. I don’t know that a prediction is even possible.
WERNIKOFF: We can make as many predictions as we want, but ultimately the people who are buying and using the cars are the ones that are going to decide where this market goes. It’s not even necessarily going to be the manufacturers or the OEMs. It can be quite difficult to predict the minds of consumers sometimes, so it’s best to be prepared for every possible outcome, which is what we attempt to counsel our clients.