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Column: Why is the Senate giving more rights to driverless cars than people?

By Jason Levine

Today the U.S. Senate is holding a hearing on how driverless cars will impact the nation’s infrastructure. Last month the Senate held a confirmation hearing for Administrator of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.

Both are important topics, but a timelier hearing would investigate why the rush to get robot cars on the road is being combined with prohibiting safety standards and removing existing consumer protections. Sadly, such oversight is absent. It is nothing new to discover the auto and technology industries claim driverless cars will usher in a new era of safety, and provide American jobs, but are actually just hoping for good quarterly earnings. The news is this time the government is in on it, too.

Americans have 270 million registered cars and we drive 3 trillion miles every year. Traffic crashes result in over 37,000 deaths annually. These crashes are the leading cause of death of Americans between ages 5 and 24, and pedestrian deaths are quickly increasing. Technology that can reduce these tragedies must be embraced, and if safety can be combined with American companies leading the way, all the better.

But if the auto and technology industries, some senators, and the Trump administration get their way, when the sensors malfunction in the robot car your grandmother rides to her doctor, resulting in a crash, you will not have access to the civil justice system as guaranteed by the Constitution. There will also be no state or federal safety regulations governing the vehicle’s safety.

This turns consumer protections upside down for new technology. Today, if your SUV catches fire because of a known defect, you can bring that car company in front of a jury. If a new cancer drug is being developed, there are federal rules about how it is tested, including on how many volunteer subjects, what success looks like, and how that drug can be safely sold and marketed. 

An Uber self-driving car drives down 5th Street on March 28, 2017 in San Francisco, California. Cars in Uber's self-driving cars are back on the roads after the program was temporarily halted following a crash in Tempe, Arizona on Friday.

In the no rules, no liability environment desired by the driverless car industry, these safeguards are apparently old-fashioned. Even after a recent death in Arizona caused by an Uber driverless car with its crash-avoidance features turned off, Uber is moving full speed ahead to deploy driverless vehicles in other cities.

Even in the Trump era, it is jarring to see the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration lead the cheers to get unregulated driverless cars on the roads quickly, when so many Americans remain fearful of this development. Government safety regulations exist to ensure that products in commerce meet performance standards and provide for penalties when they do not. 

This is the case for medications. This is the case for children’s toys. And this is the case today for human-driven cars and trucks.

When 4-year-old Remi Walden burned to death in a Jeep Grand Cherokee, because of a faulty design that failed to protect the occupants of the vehicle, his parents were able to go to court. After learning Chrysler had been warned about this defect, they were able to bring the company in front of a judge and jury, resulting in a $40 million verdict.

Such partial justice is unlikely to be available for the next driverless car victim — even if a manufacturer knew about a problem ahead of time — because the majority in the U.S. Senate continues to rush a bill prohibiting state law protections, and requiring no federal regulations. 

Jason Levine is the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.