The U.S. is in a battle with China over who will dominate the market when automated vehicles transport people and goods without anyone behind the steering wheel or even without steering wheels at all.
A bill intended to help U.S. companies compete has been stalled for two years, largely because of trial lawyers’ demands, said Republican congressional aides involved with the legislation.
Trial lawyer lobbyists are influential with Democrats. They are demanding that any legislation concerning driverless vehicles include a guarantee that they can take auto companies to court should anything go wrong.
Further complicating the negotiations are labor unions, another ally of Democrats. They want any bill encouraging the development of driverless vehicles to include help for truck drivers, ride-hailing workers and others whose jobs eventually will become obsolete.
Both ideas go too far for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
The gridlock is hurting automakers at a critical time as they compete to develop driverless vehicles. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say the nascent technology promises to reduce vehicle crashes by removing human error, drunken drivers and distracted drivers from the roadways. It also would give more independence to people with disabilities and older adults.
“By holding up any new [automated vehicle] legislation, Democrats are ceding American leadership in this technology to countries like China,” a House Republican aide told The Washington Times.
A Republican Senate aide agreed: “Senate Democrats have for years put their political needs ahead of the broader needs of the American people by caving to special interests, led by trial lawyers and labor unions. This is a race that we cannot afford to lose, especially when China is our closest competitor and when American entrepreneurs and consumers and the U.S. economy stand to win.”
The aides did not want to be identified during the negotiations. Others knowledgeable about the talks said a demand by the American Association of Justice, a trial lawyers lobbying group, is a sticking point in the Senate.
Senate Democrats did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Democrats have argued at congressional hearings that problems with driverless vehicles, including the loss of jobs, are inevitable. If Congress pushes the technology forward, Democrats say, then it should deal with the ramifications.
“Innovation doesn’t have to come at the expense of our workers,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat and chair of the House Education and Labor consumer protection subcommittee, said at a recent hearing. “I am sure we will hear about our need to compete with China, but we mustn’t do so at the expense of the safety of Americans or the American workforce.”
While progress stalls in Congress, China is moving forward aggressively, Raj Rajkumar, an electrical and computer engineering professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said in an interview.
“They were initially stumbling and bumbling around and not making progress. But they’ve been improving and improving. Now there’s a lot of players in the Chinese market and a lot of money,” he said.
Hanging in limbo is a bipartisan bill that would create safety regulations for driverless vehicles and allow more testing. It also would improve financial incentives for U.S. manufacturers to invest in the development of automated vehicles by increasing the number they could sell.
Each manufacturer now can sell only 2,500 driverless vehicles to companies such as the ride-hailing service Lyft.
The limited fleet size does not give companies much of a return on investment in research and development to keep up with China, Mr. Rajkumar said.
Although no fully driverless cars are cruising around, manufacturers, including some from China, are testing prototypes on U.S. roads with drivers on board to take control if necessary.
The Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which lobbies for U.S. and international automakers, declined to answer questions for this report. It cited the ongoing negotiations in Congress.
Instead, the alliance pointed to the comments of its president and CEO, John Bozzella, at a recent hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Mr. Bozzella said that increasing the number of driverless vehicles on the road would generate more information to help guide federal regulators.
“We need to get more data,” he said. “The current process doesn’t give us enough vehicles on the road over a long enough of a time to give us that insight and data.”
The House passed a measure in 2019 to increase the number of driverless vehicles companies could sell to 25,000. The bill stalled in the Senate when Democrats wanted to add a provision pushed by trial lawyers that would bar auto companies from requiring disputes to be handled through arbitration instead of through courts.
The issue has continued to be a sticking point.
The trial lawyers group helped block an amendment proposed by Sen. Gary C. Peters, Michigan Democrat, and Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican, that would have promoted economic competitiveness with China. The amendment would have increased the number of automated vehicles a company could sell to 15,000 and ultimately 85,000, but it did not include the provision on arbitration.
“It gives auto and tech companies the ability to avoid all accountability through the use of forced arbitration clauses while eliminating fundamental rights that exist today for those injured in crashes,” Linda Lipsen, CEO of the American Association for Justice, said in a statement.
“Ultimately, the industry wants a license to use America’s roads as a test track and evade responsibility when its technology injures or kills Americans,” she said.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that the stakes are high in the competition with China.
“U.S. leadership in innovation and next-generation technology is being challenged by adversaries like the Chinese Communist Party,” said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“We must act now to make sure the U.S. continues to lead in technologies like AVs,” she said.
Mr. Peters, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, agreed. “There’s no question we’re at a crossroads now when it comes to mobility. How do we maintain our leadership on the global stage? How do we seize this opportunity to ensure mobility innovation is as transformative as the invention of the motor vehicle itself?” he said.
“Almost 40,000 people die each year in crashes on U.S. roads,” he said. “These are husbands and wives, sons and daughters, relatives and close friends. We know that autonomous vehicles save lives since 90% of accidents are caused by human error.”
Mrs. Rodgers agreed that developing vehicles that do not require drivers has potential benefits. “The idea that someone with a disability will be able to get into a car and go wherever they need to go is revolutionary,” she said.
But trial lawyers, unions and other groups say the downsides are obvious and that Congress should deal with inevitable problems before allowing companies to put more driverless cars on the road.
The trial lawyers group, also citing the ongoing negotiations, declined to comment.
Daniel Hinkle, senior state affairs counsel of the American Association for Justice, told the Senate commerce committee last year that the threat of lawsuits would encourage auto manufacturers to make sure driverless vehicles are safe.
“For over 50 years, lawsuits against vehicle manufacturers for design choices and failure to install safety technologies have spurred advancements in safety technology. From seat belts to airbags to automated systems like electronic stability control, it is often the lawsuits that have led the way in showing when and how corporations make certain choices which prioritize profit over the health and safety of American families,” he said.
There is little doubt that automakers don’t want to go to court.
Tesla, which is trying to develop automated vehicles, petitioned a federal judge in California to dismiss a class-action lawsuit claiming its electric cars accelerate without warning. The company said customers signed contracts requiring disputes to go to arbitration.
Lyft, which expects to start offering driverless rides in five years, requires many of its drivers to agree to go to arbitration rather than court to settle disputes.
Republicans said the Democrats’ demands would allow a rush of lawsuits over issues that have nothing to do with safety, such as problems with vehicles’ air conditioning or radios.
Meanwhile, the unions want to put the brakes on driverless cars until Congress addresses the shock to the workforce.
The AFL-CIO labor federation’s Transportation Trades Department, a coalition of 33 unions, declined to comment, but it is lobbying for job retraining and unemployment benefits for workers replaced by driverless technology and other artificial intelligence.
“In commercial driving alone, 3 million workers will have their jobs displaced or fundamentally changed by automation,” the department’s president, Greg Regan, told the House Energy and Commerce consumer protection subcommittee last month. “We must balance a desire to lead the world in transportation and safety with the need of American families to provide for their families and live and retire with economic security.”
The argument found support among Democrats.
“Americans need to have faith in the safety and efficacy of AVs,” said Rep. Michael Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat on the commerce committee. “They need to know someone is accountable when they fail, and we need to have a plan for how this technology is going to increase and not detract from equity in our society for workers and for marginalized communities.”
Mr. Thune agreed that safety is permanent but said Congress must act now.
“China is already acting boldly to take the lead in developing this technology. Allowing China to seize the mantle of innovation is unacceptable,” he said. “The U.S. must also act boldly to maintain its position. The United States regulatory system has to catch up with private-sector innovation to allow these technologies to advance.”