Photographer: Emile Wamsteker/ Bloomberg News.

Driverless Cars Stall in Congress as Trial Lawyers Drop Support

December 7, 2018 Shaun Courtney
  • Earlier backing seen as critical to win Democrats’ votes
  • Changes this week erode consumer protections, group says

A group representing trial lawyers is opposing legislation on self-driving vehicles after backing one section of the bill earlier this week, saying changes to other areas of the draft bill would harm consumer rights.

The American Association for Justice said Monday it could support key arbitration and preemption language in one section of the AV START (S. 1885) bill, which creates the first federal framework for self-driving technology. Senate Commerce Committee staff that day released a bill draft with language the trial lawyers said would preserve the right to bring a claim under state law and reduced the likelihood the self-driving car industry will be able to force Americans into arbitration.

Photo – Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A Ford Motor Co. Fusion set-up as an experimental self-driving delivery vehicle sits on display during the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit on January 15.

That draft “includes language which adequately preserves the right to bring a claim under state law, and sufficiently decreases the likelihood that the driverless car industry will be able to force Americans into arbitration, but only to the extent that they or their loved ones are injured or killed by an AV,” the group said in an email to lawmakers and obtained by Bloomberg Government.

“However, after we have had the opportunity to review the entire bill, we believe several of the new sections added will negatively impact consumer, passenger and roadway user rights if enacted,” the group said.

Companies Moving Ahead

The trial lawyers’ support was key to getting most Democrats on board, bill co-sponsor Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said in an interview yesterday. Their opposition could take away the broad bipartisan votes the bill needs to be able to ride on a year-end spending bill.

Absent legislation, companies like Alphabet Inc.,’s Waymo and General Motors Co.have or will launch commercial service in the next year, which would make it even harder to regulate moving forward without a federal framework in place.

The AAJ, in its letter to lawmakers, said it would revisit its opposition when a new bill draft is available.

The trial lawyers’ announcement comes after months of negotiations. Some of the changes made to the measure since it advanced out of committee last year were aimed at securing the support of trial lawyers. Thune said the trial lawyers were a “big part of the equation” to getting Democrats to sign off on the legislation.

In announcing its lukewarm support Monday, the group had left open the possibility that there may be issues in it the AAJ hadn’t been able to review. Friday’s note to lawmakers comes after days where Democrats and aligned interest groups criticized the legislation.

To contact the reporter on this story: Shaun Courtney in Washington at scourtney@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Jonathan Nicholson at jnicholson@bgov.com

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