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US lawmakers, trial lawyers clash over self-driving rules

Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Washington — Lawmakers in the U.S. House on Tuesday took to task a trial lawyers' lobby group that helped kill a bill setting regulations for self-driving cars. 

The Washington-based American Association for Justice, which lobbies for trial lawyers who typically represent plaintiffs, had objected to a lack of concrete protections that would ensure the right to sue an automaker if someone is hurt or killed in a self-driving vehicle. The 2018 Senate bill had been championed by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

A similar measure was approved unanimously by the House in 2017, but lawmakers had to start over when the new Congress began in 2019. 

Silicon Valley robotics company Nuro has been granted approval to run its self-driving R2 delivery vehicle without the steering wheel, brake pedal and other features required of vehicles driven by humans.

Speaking during a hearing of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., placed blame for the roadblock mostly on trial lawyers, who typically align with Democrats. 

"It should be clear from the history of this process that Republicans and Democrats on this panel worked very hard with your organization to get sign off and support when we first moved this bill," Walden said. "So you might imagine my disappointment when you all asked for more changes in the Senate, despite the deal we had here in the House with your organization."

"But it was even more curious that when Senate Republicans and Democrats ceded to the provisions you were seeking, you still didn’t support the deal," Walden continued.

Daniel Hinkle, state affairs counsel for the American Association of Justice, defended the organization for insisting on clear liability rules in any future self-driving legislation. He cited lawsuits filed against General Motors Co. that revealed the company’s flawed ignition switches had been found to be defective years earlier, but nobody inside the company had raised the alarm. In all, 2.59 million cars were recalled due to faulty switches that ultimately were linked to 124 deaths and hundreds of injuries. 

"The difference between an automated vehicle and a human-driven vehicle is a promise," he said. "It is a promise from the manufacturer of that automated driving-system that they will operate the vehicle safely on our roads...The key question is whether our laws will hold these companies accountable for that promise."

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, argued it is essential for Congress to set rules for self-driving testing to ensure the U.S. remains competitive in the global race to develop the technology. 

"Automated vehicles aren’t just something we read about in science-fiction novels anymore. They’re here, transforming mobility and transportation as we know it," Dingell said. 

"AVs are bringing jobs to this country, but we cannot take it for granted," she continued. "This transformation is an open international competition, and other countries are stepping up. Other countries are in the game and trying to beat us. Automated vehicles will be developed globally, whether we like it or not, and it’s critical that America be at the forefront of innovation by leading the development of this technology." 

The push to revive self-driving legislation comes after the federal government gave the green light to the first self-driving vehicle with no steering wheel, brake pedal — or human driver.

Nuro Inc., a robotics company based in Mountain View, Calif., was given permission by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to put up to 5,000 of its autonomous R2 electric delivery vehicles on the road over a two-year period. 

John Bozzella, CEO of the new Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which lobbies for self-driving friendly laws, touted the potential for autonomous vehicles to drastically reduce the number of deaths that occur annually on U.S. roadways. 

"Unlike conventional human drivers, AVs can’t get distracted, drive impaired or fall asleep at the wheel,” he said. 

Dingell agreed, saying the rapid development of self-driving technology should spur lawmakers to action. 

"Safety, including cybersecurity, has to be our top priority here," she said. "Nobody wants to let unsafe technologies on the road. But we also don’t want to prevent vehicles that would improve safety and mobility… from reaching consumers easier." 

"We must in 2020 get this over the line," Dingell continued. "If you’re a safety advocate, you should want a bill to give NHTSA the authority to ensure these vehicles are safe. If you’re an innovator, you need certainty to know what the rules of the road are."

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Twitter: @Keith_Laing