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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:

Go deeper

Mike Allen, author of AM
3 hours ago - World

Courage vs. coddling with China

Peng Shuai of China serves during the China Open in Beijing in 2017. Photo: Andy Wong/AP

The women's professional tennis tour suspended tournaments in China Wednesday out of concern for Peng Shuai, on the same day that a top business voice made excuses for Beijing.

Why it matters: Ahead of February's Winter Olympics in Beijing, some sports figures are taking on the regime — while Big Business shrinks from confrontation with the world's second-largest economy.

3 hours ago - Sports

What to know about the first MLB lockout since 1995

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Hope you enjoyed the recent flurry of free-agent activity, because it's likely the last non-lockout-related MLB news for a while.

Driving the news: The owners locked out the players after the collective bargaining agreement expired at midnight last night, leading to MLB's ninth work stoppage — and first since 1995.

Biden extends mask mandates for travelers into 2022

President Biden delivers remarks at the White House on Dec. 1. Photo: Anna Moneymaker via Getty Images

President Biden will announce new testing protocols for international travelers on Thursday and extend masking requirements through March as the U.S. prepares to fight the Omicron variant this winter, according to senior administration officials.

Driving the news: The U.S. will tighten pre-departure testing protocols starting early next week by requiring all inbound international travelers to take COVID-19 tests within one day of their departure rather than three.