Robotic-car law hits roadblock in Senate

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — A group representing trial lawyers is putting up roadblocks to a self-driving car bill in the U.S. Senate, objecting to a lack of protections that would ensure the right to sue if someone is hurt or killed in a self-driving car.

Supporters of the measure championed by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters are considering attaching it to a must-pass bill that provides funding for the Federal Aviation Administration in a bid to get it to the president's desk.

The Washington, D.C-based American Association for Justice, which lobbies for trial lawyers who typically represent plaintiffs, says the Senate self-driving bill should be amended to include language which ensures victims are not forced into arbitration.

"Since many of the companies expected to make and operate driverless cars already force nearly all claims into secret, binding arbitration, preserving the right to seek public accountability in cases involving a person’s death and injury is critically important to public safety," the group said in a statement. "Without these changes, the bill is simply insufficient." 

The argument appears to be holding sway with some U.S. senators. At least five have publicly expressed concerns about the measure, pointing to recent crashes involving Uber and Tesla vehicles that were operating autonomously or semi-autonomously. The opposition has thus far prevented the self-driving bill from being quickly passed in the notoriously deliberate upper chamber. 

The gridlock has prompted backers of the self-driving bill to eye the possibility of attaching the measure to an unrelated bill that provides funding for the FAA that has to be passed before October to prevent a shutdown of the nation's air traffic control system. 

“We’re still shopping that idea with our Democrat colleagues, and our staffs are talking,” U.S. John Thune, R-S.D., who is the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the primary author of the Senate's self-driving bill, told Politico.

A similar self-driving measure sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives with relatively ease last year, but the Senate's version has been held up for nearly a year amid concerns about the wisdom of allowing automakers to quickly sell thousands of self-driving cars and the vulnerability of driverless systems to potential hackers. The new law would allow each automaker to sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars per year.

Joan Claybrook, chairwoman of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said in a call with reporters that supporters of the self-driving bill are "trying to ram" the bill through the Senate with "an artificial sense of urgency whipped up by the auto and tech companies seeking to discard safety standards"

"It's a fool's errand to think the same industry that gave us the Takata air bags and GM's faulty ignition switches can be trusted to self-regulate their driverless car," said Claybrook, who led NHTSA during the Jimmy Carter administration, said of the measure, which is known as the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV Start) Act.

Attaching legislation to other measures that are coming up for a vote is a common practice in Congress, and Peters and other supporters have admitted they are looking for what is known in the legislative process as “a vehicle” to get the self-driving bill over the hump.

Supporters of the self-driving measure argue that the Senate should pass the self-driving bill by whatever means are necessary because automated cars will reduce the number of deadly crashes that occur on U.S. highways. 

"Development and eventual deployment of advanced vehicle technologies have the potential to significantly reduce the number of crashes and at the same time expand mobility options for persons with disabilities, seniors and those who require access to more affordable transportation," a group of 107 organizations, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, wrote in a letter to Senate leaders.

The proposed measure would allow automakers to expand testing of self-driving cars on U.S. roads while it directs the U.S. Department of Transportation to produce a report on provisions in federal motor vehicle safety standards that need to be updated to allow self-driving cars to perform tasks that are currently required of human operators. It would create a technical safety committee for highly automated cars.

A similar measure was passed in 2017 by the U.S. House of Representatives. Senate backers have been hoping to either win unanimous consent for their version of the self-driving bill, which has proven to be a heavy lift — or to find a bill that appears to have better prospects for passage to attach it to. 

Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, who co-authored the Senate's self-driving bill, has defended the measure from attacks from safety advocates, arguing that it is important for Congress to put rules in place to guide self-driving testing that is already happening in Michigan and other states. 

“This is a safety bill," Peters said in a statement to The Detroit News. "Without this bill, companies will continue to put vehicles on the road without additional federal oversight and without having to certify that the technology meets the critical safety requirements in the legislation."

Safety advocates have questioned the wisdom of allowing car companies to operate self-driving cars before the federal rules are in place. They cite recent polling that shows Americans are concerned about safety when the idea of sharing the road with driverless vehicles is raised. A recent poll by ORC International showed 69 percent of respondents raised such fears. 

Robert Passmore is assistant vice president of personal lines policy for Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, which has endorsed an amendment that allows access to data generated by self-driving cars during crashes. He said liability issues will have to be addressed before large numbers of self-driving cars are allowed to roll.

"The wild card is product liability," he said. "Would you hold the manufacturer responsible if the system made a mistake? Everybody's got this idea that this will reduce the number of accidents, but maybe they will get more complicated to adjudicate."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing