Spartan Lawyer Winter 2019

New Frontiers: Cannabis, Cars, and Companion Animals

We asked thinkers in three fast-moving legal fields for their best guesses about what's changing in the next decade. Here's what they had to say.


Before joining the MSU Law faculty, Professor Nicholas Wittner spent 30 years in the auto industry, providing legal advice to promote safety and reduce liability risks. Today he’s a key player in the emerging autonomous vehicle (AV) product liability field.

Wittner starts the conversation about AV and the law by explaining that there aren’t simply automated cars and non-automated cars: there are levels of driving automation. Understanding those levels, he says, is critical to understanding the legal issues – and future – of AV. Most AVs are still Level 2, meaning they help drivers, not replace them:

LEVEL 1: Limited driver assistance

LEVEL 2: Partial automation

LEVEL 3: Conditional automation

LEVEL 4: High automation

LEVEL 5: Full automation

Fresh off chairing the Automated Vehicles Legal Issues World Congress, Wittner talks enthusiastically about the Level 2 partial automation in his Nissan Rogue: automatic emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, lane-keep and centering, adaptive cruise control, cameras and sensors, and highway assisted-piloting. “All these features – they ease the consumer into higher levels of comfort with automation,” he says. “Right now, we’re learning to trust it.”

But he’s in charge, and the car requires him to stay involved. “It doesn’t like snowstorms where it can’t see lane markers or roads where there aren’t any,” he notes. “It’ll say ‘sorry, you’re on your own now.’” And when Wittner takes his hands off the steering wheel, he’s reminded to stay on task, first with flashing lights, then with a pump of the brakes designed to jolt him back to attentiveness. If that doesn’t inspire him to grip the wheel, the car will slow to a complete stop. Wittner’s car reminds him to stay engaged; otherwise, he might not pay enough attention, resulting in accidents and injuries.


Huge AV testing zones in southeast Michigan are already in use, and MSU’s expansive mobility initiatives include a fully networked campus ecosystem, industry-leading research, and policy initiatives for our shared autonomous future.

There will be, and already are, lawsuits. Wittner predicts that this next transitional decade will see AV liability suits mostly in two “low-hanging fruit” areas: (1) failure to warn or adequately instruct drivers about the limits of automation and (2) misrepresentation. For example, Tesla, in its rush to market its “A utopilot,” overhyped the “selfdriving” features. Fatal crashes occurred, undercutting public trust in the technology and exposing the manufacturer to liability. The federal government faulted Tesla for making drivers overly-reliant.

“Right now, we’re at a point where customers need clarity about how much engagement and monitoring these cars need,” notes Wittner. “Manufacturers must take great care in what they say.”

The transition to AV isn’t just cultural. “The policies, laws, and regulations need to change,” Wittner says. “Even the definition of ‘driver’ needs to be changed.” In 2018, he and his research assistants completed a grant from the State of Michigan’s Council on Future Mobility to identify laws and regulations that could impede AV market entry. It’s all part of an effort by Michigan to be the leader in bringing these vehicles to market. Across the country, lawmakers are taking close note.

Wittner knows that not everyone is equally excited about the autonomous vehicle future. Baby Boomers are more likely to enjoy driving than Gen X-ers and Millennials, and Boomers often distrust the technology. But he sees a looming social need for new ways to stay mobile, and he thinks that aging Boomers will benefit tremendously from AV, whether they like it or not.

“I’m not looking forward to the day when I have to surrender my driver’s license,” says Wittner. “But I am looking forward to the day when I can get in a car and it can take me where I need to go.”

Thank You to Our Bold Prognosticators!

Nicholas J. Wittner
Professor in Residence | MSU Law

Professor Wittner spent decades working in product liability at Nissan North America and General Motors. He recently chaired the 2019 Autonomous Vehicles Legal Issues World Congress.