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

U.S. companies may suffer amid Huawei restrictions

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

A new regulation announced last week requires foreign semiconductor suppliers that use U.S. designs to get a license from the U.S. government before selling to Huawei. Business groups aren't exactly welcoming the move with open arms.

Why it matters: The new restrictions may reduce revenues and hobble research and development for U.S. companies.

May 20, 2020 - Technology

Big Tech's aid to small business comes with a catch

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Big tech companies, including Facebook and Google, have made much of their efforts to help small businesses hurting from the pandemic. But the same programs that make life easier for those businesses today could end up separating them from their customers and ultimately hand even more power over to the tech giants.

Why it matters: Lockdowns imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have devastated America's small businesses, and the fate of any economic recovery following the crisis will hang on whether they can be revived.

Michael Flynn's lawyers file petition to force judge to dismiss charges

Photo: Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

Lawyers for former national security adviser Michael Flynn filed a writ of mandamus petition to the U.S. Court of Appeals in D.C. on Tuesday that would compel U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan to immediately grant the Justice Department's motion to dismiss charges.

Why it matters: Sullivan moved to put the DOJ's motion on hold last week to hear from outside parties that may seek to intervene through an amicus brief. He also appointed a retired judge to recommend whether Flynn should face a criminal contempt charge for perjury after he twice declared under oath that he had lied to the FBI before attempting to withdraw his guilty plea in January.