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Alum Dukarski is shaping the future of autonomous vehicles

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July 10, 2018

Detroit Mercy alum Jennifer Dukarski poses for a photo.The point where driverless vehicles and the law intersect is nearly uncharted territory, but one University of Detroit Mercy alumna has positioned herself there to help keep an industry on the right road.

“You never know what path you will take, so you have to bend; you cannot be inflexible. When you see the wind of change, you have to seize it,” said Jennifer Dukarski, a partner in the Ann Arbor office of Butzel Long.

Dukarski is a two-time graduate of Detroit Mercy — she earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering in ’96 and her juris doctor degree in ’10. The law degree wasn’t always part of the plan, but Dukarski seized the wind of change at the right time for her.

She calls herself a “recovering engineer,” following a career of high-level engineering and management positions with Tier One suppliers including Delphi and Johnson Controls, turning around struggling plants, overseeing challenging product launches and working to minimize quality issues and recalls.

Well-respected and at a high level in her field, she was encouraged by a mentor to get more education and Dukarski considered an MBA. The mentor suggested Dukarski think bigger, which led her to Detroit Mercy Law’s night program.

Knowing the way forward would mean a leap of faith, Dukarski resigned her position with Johnson Controls for a 10-week summer internship with a law firm, and no promises it would turn into a full-time job. It paid off, but the goal now was to find her niche.

“I worked predominantly in intellectual property, and I thought 3-D printing might be an issue that I could specialize in. I did a lot of research but there were not many legal issues and the ones there were could be pretty easily solved,” Dukarski said. It was about that time she heard rumblings about driverless cars. Her automotive experience with recalls and product launches seemed like good preparation.

She read a lot of legal scholarship about driverless vehicles and it fell into two camps. The first said the body of law being written about driverless vehicles could draw from the law written when people riding elevators had to put their trust in the operators who ran them. The second category said driverless car law could be based on dog-bite law.

“I felt there was more to it than that,” Dukarski said. “There was a lot of open room for application. I spent a lot of time developing my knowledge, though people thought I was on one of my fool errands, like the 3-D printing, but this has been really successful for me.”

How successful? She has become a leader in the autonomous vehicle field, negotiating contracts for their components and worked on contracts involving wireless updates to in-vehicle technology. She has been seen on television and quoted in print interviews and spoken widely on the legal issues in the field. Later this month, Dukarski will be a featured panelist during the Center for Automative Research Management Briefing Seminars, where she will be on a panel titled “Will your Self-driving Car Need a License?”

What does she think the future holds for autonomous vehicles?

“There’s no question the technology is real,” she said. “It’s not perfect, but it is there. We are early on and so many vehicles on the road with some of that technology are doing a good job.”

Experts predict there will be approximately 40,000 autonomous vehicles on the road by 2023, and while they will have an impact on the streets and the automotive industry, their societal impact may prove to be even more important.

Think of the way they can provide enhanced mobility to our aging population, or people with disabilities or those who can’t afford a vehicle? They could be a replacement for mass transit in some urban areas. What might these vehicles mean to the insurance industry and to those who plan and design urban centers?

“What do you do when designing a place of business and you don’t need parking, because people can be dropped off by an autonomous vehicle that then goes somewhere else,” Dukarski asked. “There are many questions that still need to be answered.”

— By Ron Bernas. Follow Detroit Mercy on FacebookTwitter and Instagram. Have a story idea? Let us know by submitting your idea.

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