Feb 11, 2020 - Economy & Business

Self-driving vehicle law hits a speed bump

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

Lawmakers working to speed a federal framework for autonomous vehicles into law face a key obstacle that stymied previous attempts: who gets sued in collisions.

The big picture: Manufacturers and tech companies want federal rules of the road for their roll-out of self-driving vehicles. But trial lawyers, a powerful lobby, want key questions on liability in a driverless world answered before legislation advances.

Driving the news: Daniel Hinkle, an attorney with the American Association for Justice, is one of six people testifying at a House Energy & Commerce consumer protection subcommittee hearing Tuesday.

  • In his written testimony, Hinkle warned that in order to ensure manufacturers live up to the promise that autonomous vehicles will be safe, laws — and consumer access to the courts — must hold them accountable to that promise.
  • Specifically, trial lawyers want to see manufacturers face liability as the "drivers" in collisions, and want Congress to prohibit forced arbitration so that consumers could sue manufacturers.
  • "The reality is that vehicle manufacturers have almost never voluntarily embraced safety technology without some precipitating force — and that force has most commonly been public accountability through the courts," Hinkle wrote.

Yes, but: Others argue the arbitration issue shouldn't hold up urgently needed legislation.

  • Arbitration is "a distraction," said Marc Scribner, senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
  • But AAJ notes that early uses of autonomous vehicles could involve ordering up a ride from Uber or Lyft, which already use arbitration clauses in their app contracts.
  • "When Uber and Lyft are not only providing the car service but they are quite literally driving the car, they should be able to be held accountable not as a ride-share tech company, but as an auto manufacturer," said Julia Duncan, AAJ senior director of government affairs.

Other groups testifying Tuesday: Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Alliance for Automotive Innovation, National Federation of the Blind, Consumer Technology Association and San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Context: After AV legislation stalled in 2017 and 2018, in part because of questions about liability, lawmakers from both parties in both the House and the Senate are working together on a new bill.

What they're saying: The clock is ticking for Congress to act, Energy and Commerce Republican ranking member Greg Walden (R-OR) argues in prepared remarks.

  • "The U.S. is in a global race to AVs, but today the cost of inaction is clear: we are behind," he says.
  • But consumer advocates argue that safety should be the priority.

Where it stands: Without federal legislation, a hodgepodge of state laws allows the testing and deployment of self-driving cars.

  • In the meantime, NHTSA will have to consider exemptions from existing safety regulations on a case-by-case basis.
  • Last week, it granted the first exemption to Nuro, maker of a low-speed delivery vehicle.

Go deeper:

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NTSB warns about lax oversight of new car tech

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

There's mounting evidence that people put too much trust in driver-assistance features like Tesla Autopilot, but federal regulators aren't doing enough to ensure the systems are deployed safely, experts say.

Why it matters: Nearly 37,000 Americans die each year in highway accidents. As automated features become more common, the roads could get more dangerous — not safer — if drivers use the technology in unintended ways.

How Uber, Lyft made traffic worse

Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.

Ride-sharing companies aren't the traffic solution they'd once hoped to be, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The big picture: "Multiple studies show that Uber and Lyft have pulled people away from buses, subways and walking, and that the apps add to the overall amount of driving in the U.S.," per the Journal.

Senate debate on bipartisan climate package could open new fault lines

Sens. Joe Manchin and Lisa Murkowski. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via Getty Images

The Senate's debate over energy legislation this week is slated to bring fresh collisions over climate change overall and electric vehicles policy specifically.

Catch up fast: The Senate will consider a grab bag of measures introduced as a catch-all package by Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, who head the Senate's energy panel.