Science Fiction or Science Fact: Autonomous Cars May Soon Become Reality for Consumers

A concept of science fiction movies became reality overnight on October 9, 2010, when Google announced on its blog that it had created and tested a self-driving car:

“Our automated cars, manned by trained operators, just drove from our Mountain View campus to our Santa Monica office and on to Hollywood Boulevard. They’ve driven down Lombard   Street, crossed the Golden Gate bridge, navigated the Pacific Coast Highway, and even made it all the way around Lake Tahoe. All in all, our self-driving cars have logged over 140,000 miles. We think this is a first in robotics research.”

Some say autonomous car technology fits perfectly with Google’s work on mapping and software. Sebastian Thrun of Google said the technology was created to help prevent traffic accidents, free up people’s time as they drive, and help lower emissions. Others hail this technology as one that will reduce traffic congestion and thereby decreasing drive time, not to mention stress. Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders, expects the autonomous car to be market ready in less than five years.

With such an optimistic timeframe from developers, lawmakers are faced with the question of liability. Are today’s products liability laws ready to handle such advanced technology? Scholar Andrew P. Garza is confident that products liability laws are equipped to handle self-driving cars on the roads and the inevitable “wrinkles and wrecks” that may occur due to the technology. He explained how products liability law previously handled advances such as seat belts, air bags, and cruise control, and he suggests that self-driving technology will be handled in the same manner.

In the past, car manufacturers have been skeptical of new technologies because they increased manufacturer liability. For instance, the first seat belt was introduced in 1955, and Ford Motor Company led the charge to increase awareness and market-wide adoption. But others were skeptical. General Motors worked against such efforts and tried to discourage their adoption. After many years and involvement by organizations such as the American Medical Association and the U.S. Health Service, seat belts are the norm. To be sure, litigation has involved seat belts with claims such as defects that enhanced injuries, but products liabilities law have been able to address the technology adequately. Garza feels the same will be true of autonomous cars.

The sticky part of Garza’s argument is that one will not know if products liability laws are truly equipped to handle self-driving cars until the issues actually arise. Also, a major difference should be noted between truly automated driving and advances such as seat belts, cruise control, driver-assist parking, etc. The later technologies are not in complete control of one’s vehicle and can be manually disabled quickly. Additionally, driver-assist parking occurs at a very low rate of speed so in case of a glitch in the technology, the resulting damage to vehicles is likely minimal. The complexity of the autonomous car technology scares some consumers. Who hasn’t experienced the blue screen during computer failure? Or a computer shutdown during the least opportune time? If a car, driving at 70 mph on a freeway, experiences a computer shut down, the results could be disastrous. And liability issues then become complicated. Will the manufacturer or developer be to blame? Or the person manning the vehicle? These liability issues and more must be studied further before consumers take the wheel-or rather allow their computers to take the wheel.


Access to DNA Identification after Disaster and Conflict – A Look at International Policy and Ethics

At 9 a.m. on Wednesday, April 24, 2013, a poorly constructed clothing manufacturing building in Bangladesh collapsed with some 3,500 garment workers trapped inside. The eight-story building named Rana Plaza was located on the outskirts of Dhaka. Workers knew the building was unsafe. Just the day before, a local building inspector had ordered workers to evacuate the building. “But on Wednesday, April 24, they were told they would not be paid for the month unless they returned to work. An hour later the building collapsed.”

Initial reports included around 1,040 deaths, but later the number rose to over 1,100. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised families of those who died $1,250 in cash and $19,000 in savings certificates. Unfortunately, months later, many of those families are still waiting for these death benefits. Why? Many have alleged government malfeasance and corruption. Others have blamed the lack of adequate access to DNA identification. In fact, many families are still awaiting the return of the bodies of their loved ones.

The lack of forensic identification technologies, like those associated with the Rana Plaza disaster, was the focus of a recently released study done by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). In February 2011, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced an award of $1.2 million to researchers at CMU. Researchers were tasked with developing ethics and policy recommendations for post-conflict and post-disaster DNA ID practices.  Jay Aronson, associate professor of science, technology, and society at CMU and one of the lead researchers on the project noted that “it has become increasingly clear that identifying missing people and returning their remains to families can be a crucial step in the reconstruction of societies recovering from mass violence or mass disaster.” He also noted that the identification process is heavily tied to legal, economic, and cultural issues-much of what the group’s research focused on.

Aronson and his colleagues recently published their findings in an article in Science. At the outset, researchers at CMU set goals for their study. One was to “identify and examine the challenges of collecting, storing, and using genetic information in low-resource…environments”. They also sought to explain why some disasters received more attention than others when it comes to DNA identification (e.g. post-911 versus Rana Plaza). The group found that although humanitarian organizations recognize the importance of these forensic technologies, the lack of willingness of local governments or the lack of resources to pay for these technologies hinders access to the service. In areas of poverty, researchers likened forensic identification to a luxury. Not only can scientific identification help loved ones begin the healing process, it may help with legal issues such as receiving death benefits, disposing of personal  property, seeking restitution in legal proceedings, or accessing other financial resources.

As such, researchers recommend that formalized international structures be put in place to provide access to DNA identification in cases of conflict or disaster. Without going into detail, the group suggested two ways this may come about. The international structure could come in the form of a single international institution, or it may be found in a decentralized network of agencies. A network of agencies seems most likely to succeed. Humanitarian organizations and certain NGOs likely have the resources and access needed to initiate a collaborative effort to promote access to forensic technologies in low income areas. Whether its people affected by mass disaster like the Rana Plaza workers or mass violence like those in Nepal left without a breadwinner due to the conflict between the government and the Maoist rebels, these individuals deserve this forensic service helping them to heal from their wounds and move forward.

PET Scans Reveal New Breakthrough in Alzheimer’s Disease

After talking about Science and Culpability, specifically brain imaging, an article immediately grabbed my attention regarding new advances in PET scans.  Like we discussed in class, PET Scans produce 3D color images used to measure how the brain is functioning.  The researcher injects a substance into the body that causes different areas of the brain to “light up” depending on activity level.

A recent Alzheimer’s pathology study detected a protein called Tau that could be a breakthrough for Alzheimer’s patients.

According to a Forbes article, several earlier methods have targeted amyloid-beta, or plaques, which are a key indicator of the Alzheimer’s, but this new research highlights a new protein, Tau, in the brain’s hippocampus. Scientists feel that “using PET scans to visualize what’s going on in the brain may be a complement to amyloid-beta imaging, and one day help diagnose the disease very early on – before symptoms even occur.” In addition, these PET scans that track Tau can be visualized very early on in the disease, unlike old technology that could only really visualize the problems in the brain late in the disease or after death.

In a legal context, PET scans that detect Alzheimer’s and dementia could be beneficial for lawyers in will contest cases. If admitted into evidence, these scans would help prove or challenge capacity of the client. Since the testator of an estate only has to have mental capacity at the time he/she signs the will, it is often one of the main elements argued in court. These brain scans could be used to provide evidence of the stage of Alzheimer’s disease by comparing the amount of Tau on different pictures of the patient/client on different days.

However these medical advances in brain imaging do not come without problems. As we discussed in class, although a useful tool for lawyers and judges, PET scans can also have negative effects like human error, difficulty in understanding and interpreting the scan, problems of admissibility into evidence, and jury confusion when interpreting the scan.

Hopefully new advances in technology will continue to increase the reliability and reliance on brain imaging so the scans can be used as a helpful tool in court.

Additional sources include:

Do we need more scientific basis for our drug policies?

The closing paragraph of a recent New York Times piece on rational choices made by drug addicts raises the question of whether scientists have furnished policy-makers with the broad range of information they would need to make good drug policy. The piece reports on studies by Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University, in which Hart’s test-subjects, drug addicts, made rational choices between a delayed reward and an immediate drug-fix.

Dr. Hart did not appear to be surprised by the results. The Times quotes him saying that scientists have “played a less than honorable role in the war on drugs.” His concern is that “eighty to 90 percent of people are not negatively affected by drugs, but in the scientific literature nearly 100 percent of the reports are negative.” The “less than honorable role” at issue was that scientists have an economic incentive to keep telling Congress about a “terrible problem”, so that Congress will continue to fund programs to study and solve the problem.

The point Dr. Hart makes about gaming Congress bears examination. Congress’s spending power is not one that requires strict scrutiny. Congress would not need studies to prove the likelihood of addiction as long as there is a rational basis to support pursuing the policies it enacts. In this case, Hart’s indication that ten to 20 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine will become addicts, combined with the negative behavior associated with the addicts shows a significant population of addicts that are capable of the negative behaviors associated with the non-rational drug-addicts. Even without expecting 100 percent of drug users to wreak havoc on our civilization, a limited exposure to those who do exhibit the behavior published in the negative reports should justify enacting a policy that would study and help minimize the impact of drug-addiction.

Apple Fingerprint ID May Have Serious Legal Consequences

This week, the country eagerly awaits the new iPhone 5S. We’ve obviously been through this cycle before, waiting for a new phone that will be more expensive and only slightly different than the previous version. The public jumps on the chance to be in the first wave of persons with the cool, new, most technologically up-to-date phone! But this time may be a little different. This time, there may be legal implications that the greater public likely hasn’t thought through.

An editorial discusses how the new phone, with its high-tech fingerprint authentication system, may force a person’s locked cellphone outside of the protection of the Fifth Amendment. The Fifth Amendment protects the right to not give self-incriminating testimony. The Supreme Court has discussed that “testimony” constitutes our thoughts and information stored in our minds. Pin numbers and passwords would be included in this. Because we store our passwords and pin numbers in our minds, the government cannot require us to provide them in order to unlock our cellphones which may hold incriminating evidence.

But, keys and other tangible property are not considered testimony because they are not contained within our thoughts. To illustrate, the author of the article uses the example that the police could confiscate the key to a lockbox that contains incriminating evidence but could not force anyone to give the combination to a safe that contains the same incriminating evidence. In the case of the iPhone, while our passwords and pin numbers would be protected so long as they are stored in our minds, our fingerprints are tangible and possibly would not be considered as “testimony” for protection under the Fifth Amendment. It is possible that we could be forced to give up our fingerprints for access into our iPhone 5s should the government ever have probable cause to search them.

So, while you may be excited about this new technology, be careful of the implications. And, be careful of what you store in your phone – possibly a good lesson anyway. As a society, this may be one advance in technology we may not want to support. Food for thought.

There are many other issues that could play into this including Fourth Amendment protections and whether courts would hold as this attorney blogger believes, but it is an interesting issue and something to be aware of if you plan to have the iPhone 5s and use the fingerprint authentication.

There’s an App for That – FDA to Regulate Mobile Health Apps

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the agency that regulates mobile medical applications. FDA has jurisdiction over mobile medical apps because they fall into the category of medical “devices” which FDA clearly has jurisdiction over according to the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1938. “Devices” is defined as any product intended to diagnose, cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent disease, or any product intended to affect the structure or function of the body. This broad definition inevitably includes medical apps.

Mobile health apps have increased in popularity in recent years to include apps as simple as calorie trackers and diet and work out plan apps to apps more closely designed for treatment purposes like glucose monitoring and those that display medical images for physicians, radiologists, and technicians.  As another example, Smartphones are commonly used in place of stethoscopes and pagers by physicians. It is estimated that the number of consumers downloading mobile health applications doubles every year, and this number is expected to hit 500 million downloads by 2015. Additionally, the App Store, for Apple users, includes around 13,000 different health applications for its consumers.

With the market being flooded with these mobile health apps, especially those with mitigation of disease or treatment focuses, someone needs to be looking over developers’ shoulders ensuring that the technology is well-tested and reliable. FDA recently stepped up to the plate by announcing its Draft Guidance on Mobile Medical Applications (released July 2011). (Note: FDA Guidance documents are not legally binding but do reflect the current thinking of FDA officials who hold authorizing power over medical device applications.) FDA allowed time for public comments during the months following its release, and many groups, including app makers, have joined the conversation.

FDA also announced its intention to finalize the Draft Guidance by the end on 2013. However, some lawmakers and advocacy groups are pressuring the FDA to hold off for now. These groups suggest that FDA needs to clarify its regulatory policies regarding mobile health. Others suggest that FDA needs more time and resources to adequately plan for the extra work it will soon take on as a result of the new regulations. Others have even suggested that a new division entirely be created and given authority over medical app approvals to ensure adequate scientific expertise for the testing and approval processes. At bottom, it’s clear that app makers, many of whom are IT folks with little experience in the medical industry, need guidance. FDA is the most favorable agency positioned to do that.