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‘Law of Autonomous Vehicles’ course challenges students to engage in emerging legal field

November 01, 2021

In one of our newest courses, students engage in vibrant discussions at the nexus of law, philosophy, rapidly-growing business sectors, and cutting-edge technological innovation.

Lecturer in Law and Deputy General Counsel at Aurora Innovation Nolan Shenai C’04 enjoys tackling challenging questions and, despite a busy schedule, has always been drawn to teaching. As a lawyer in the autonomous vehicles industry, he regularly draws on his philosophical background to think through matters at the nexus of law, ethics, and technological innovation. When the COVID-19 pandemic brought much of the world to a screeching halt, Shenai recognized the “new normal” of remote engagement offered him an ideal opportunity to propose his idea for a cutting-edge new legal course at virtually any legal institution across the country.

Nolan Shenai C?04  Nolan Shenai C’04 Shenai first taught “Law of Autonomous Vehicles” at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School during the fall of 2020. Shenai estimated that about half of the students enrolled in the course have a specific interest in autonomous vehicles, and the other half are interested more broadly in the ways in which different areas of law interact with an emerging technological field. Regardless of students’ particular career goals, the course provides the space and opportunity to think through the myriad of intriguing legal questions raised by technological innovation.

“Whether it is artificial intelligence, machine learning, or fin-tech, there are so many industries that are new or that are changing and evolving because of technology,” Shenai explained. “The sort of framework we learn in this course is going to be applicable across a variety of industries.”

Shenai begins the course by introducing students to deontological and teleological ethical concepts, underscoring that the notion of “choice” is complicated when autonomous vehicle technology and classic legal philosophy intersect. As the semester progresses, students continue to engage with materials both inside and outside the bounds of traditional legal academia. The syllabus includes a mix of caselaw, law review articles, policy documents, and engineering scholarship – it even delves briefly into science-fiction, with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

“Part of what I would like students to take away is a thought process on how to navigate emerging issues to which there are no right or wrong answers. This will make them better lawyers, both as external counsel to clients and as in house lawyers,” Shenai said. “My hope is that, by virtue of the discussions and the readings, not only will people walk away from the class with an enhanced understanding of autonomous vehicles and the legal issues facing autonomous vehicles, but that they will also have constructed a framework of how to tackle really interesting problems that are in an emerging area of law.”

Throughout the course, Shenai encourages students to think deeply about how this area of technology either challenges or fits within historic conceptions of the law. For example, how should criminal law approach mens rea when an autonomous vehicle is being driven by an algorithm and not a driver? How might legislators have to re-think safety and traffic regulations that presuppose a human in a driver’s seat?

Guest speakers from across sectors join the students virtually throughout the course to discuss the areas of autonomous vehicle law that they encounter in their work. Among this semester’s guests are Anna-Lisa Corrales, the Vice President of Compliance at Vroom, and Ericka Jones, an advisor and litigator specializing in regulatory compliance at Mayer Brown.

To Shenai, the best part of teaching is the respectful exchange of knowledge and the ability to continue to grow and have one’s views challenged and expanded. Even early in the semester, Shenai noted that he observed students in the Law of Autonomous Vehicles course grow “more passionate about the subject matter, more passionate about the reading material, and more willing to respectfully and substantively engage with their classmates on really challenging and complex issues.”

“For me, that’s why I love teaching,” Shenai said. “Having those debates and those dialogues and having your mind actively be changed because people are engaging with issues and seeing things you haven’t seen is something that I find really incredible and amazing.”

Read more about the Law School’s wide range of curricular offerings.