For the manufacturers of autonomous vehicles, the recent Uber and Tesla crashes probably couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Driven by ambitious financial goals, autonomous vehicle manufacturers are engaged in a race to get their self-driving vehicles on the road. Generally, the automakers have enjoyed healthy support among U.S. and state politicians and a new regulatory and legal framework to accommodate self-driving cars was making swift progress.
But on March 18, an autonomous Uber SUV struck and killed Elaine Herzberg, 49, as she was walking her bike across the street in Tempe, Arizona. Although the car had a human safety driver, the car was self-driving at the time of the crash.
Then, on March 23, a Tesla Model X traveling 70 mph slammed into the head of a highway divider on a highway near Mountain View, California, killing Wei Huang, a 38-year-old Apple engineer and father of two.
These recent high-profile accidents, along with about a dozen other accidents involving autonomous vehicles, may put the brakes on legislation aiming to populate U.S. roads and highways with self-driving cars and trucks.
The Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act would loosen regulations for autonomous vehicle manufacturers while lowering their liability. It would also allow automakers to sell more than 80,000 self-driving cars each per year.
Championed by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and John Thune (R-SD), the AV START Act now faces an uncertain future. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Ed Markey (D-MA), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Tom Udall (D-NM) object to some of the bill’s key provisions and say it would indefinitely pre-empt state and local safety regulations even in the absence of federal safety standards.
Following the deadly Tempe accident, 10 Democratic senators wrote a letter to autonomous vehicle manufacturers voicing concerns that the AV START Act fails to include any explicit prohibition on forced arbitration clauses in contracts between the automakers and consumers:
The innovation driving this technology is exciting, but accountability is critical to ensuring that innovation continues to promote safety first. When injury or death does occur, a forced arbitration clause would prevent consumers from exercising their fundamental legal rights as Americans…if an autonomous vehicle is defective or it is hacked into due to insufficient cybersecurity safeguards, a consumer’s day in court would be barred if such a forced arbitration clause was in the contract.
The senators note that developers like Uber use ride-sharing apps with click-through agreements that lock riders into forced arbitration clauses. In the case of Ms. Herzberg, the woman who was killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle, the senators noted that “had the victim been a passenger who had agreed to Uber’s terms of service, the victim’s family could have been denied recourse through the courts.”