Before he was old enough to know what a zipline was, Bryant Walker Smith built one in the backyard of his childhood home in Verona, Wisconsin. Youthful mischief was a natural consequence of his curious mind.
“At one point, the police showed up at my family's door to request that maybe I not dam the road in storms,” says Smith with a reluctant grin, recounting another early engineering project. “It was a very effective dam that I had built, and it was flooding the road.”
From a young age, the University of South Carolina law professor tested the limits around him; now, he’s one of the world’s leading experts in autonomous vehicle law, an emerging field where the boundaries are being set.
Smith participates in the United Nations Global Forum for Road Traffic Safety. He speaks at conferences around the world and has co-authored dozens of publications with colleagues from Germany, Switzerland, Russia and China. And he’s become a go-to source for the national media.
There’s no set road map for becoming an expert like Smith. After earning a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin, he worked for an engineering consulting firm that served transportation clients. A few years later, he sought a new challenge and earned two law degrees from New York University.
The transition from engineering to law may not seem obvious, but Smith saw clear parallels between the two.
“In both professions you often have a client with a goal, and you figure out how to use tools, given certain constraints, to achieve that goal,” he says. “In law, your constraints are ethics; in engineering, your constraints are gravity. It's this creative process of figuring out, ‘What do I want to do?’ and then, ‘How do I make it happen?’”
While some policy experts focus squarely on making large-scale impact, Smith cares deeply about individual impact, too. It partly explains why much of his work focuses on autonomous transportation. In American culture, cars are associated with freedom, but Smith is sensitive to the caveats.
“You're not free if you're stuck in traffic, or if you live next to a road and you have asthma because you're breathing in the pollution, or you are disabled or elderly and can't drive, or you can't afford an individual car,” Smith says emphatically, but he’s not without hope. “If we do automated driving right as a policy matter — and law implements policy — then maybe we can actually have a system that serves people who otherwise would be disadvantaged by motor vehicles.”
Smith’s passion for public access to opportunities spurred his decisions to attend and teach at public universities, and it’s part of what drew him to join the University of South Carolina School of Law.
“At a public university, you're likely to get such a fascinating mix of students,” Smith says. “They're absolutely phenomenal in any number of ways. They could go lots of places, and they choose to be here.”
The same could be said of Smith. He is intentional about the connections he makes — between concepts in his scholarship, where he works and resides and who he spends time with.
His passion for relationship building can be reflected in unexpected ways.
Early in the pandemic, a former student reached out to him to share that, more than five years later, they could still imagine Smith’s voice in first-year torts instructing his class to embrace the unknown. Becoming a lawyer meant they would have the skills to navigate the ambiguity.
“The student said, ‘At this time of great uncertainty, in every way, I just keep hearing your voice, and it gives me such comfort and confidence,’ ” Smith says, smiling wide. “That meant a lot to me and gave me a great deal of joy.”