Could self-driving car companies stop you from suing?

Ten U.S. senators are asking Ford, General Motors, Fiat Chrysler and other companies developing self-driving cars whether they are using or planning to use contracts with consumers that would limit their ability to sue in the case of a crash.

The letter headed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., comes as concerns are growing on Capitol Hill about autonomous vehicles and the potential for companies to use forced arbitration clauses in contracts with drivers or passengers to limit the liability of carmakers and ride-sharing operations in the event of a crash.

Last Sunday, a self-driving Uber sport-utility vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian outside Phoenix, leading the company to suspend road-testing of its autonomous vehicles there and in other cities. The letter from the senators to the car companies said that under Uber’s terms of service, if the a passenger in one of its self-driving cars died, her family in seeking damages could have been forced to accept arbitration rather than go to court.

The Center for Auto Safety and other consumer groups and advocates say forced arbitration would prohibit a driver or passenger who was hurt from joining a class-action lawsuit. They also said recently in a statement that arbitration “shifts the balance of power in the favor of big businesses, because they generally hire the arbitrator and will be its repeat customer.”

“The use of forced arbitration clauses by manufacturers would deprive consumers of their fundamental legal rights if injury occurs, and would reduce the incentives of some manufacturers to keep vehicles safe,” the letter said. It also noted that legislation under consideration in Congress – which is sponsored by U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and would allow self-driving car manufacturers to sell as many as 80,000 autonomous cars a year – doesn’t expressly prohibit the use of forced arbitration clauses.

“The innovation driving this technology is exciting, but accountability is critical to ensuring that innovation continues to promote safety first,” said the letter. It asked automakers and self-driving car companies specific questions whether they currently use or plan to use forced arbitration provisions and whether they would commit to not using or enforcing them in the future.

Detroit automakers did not immediately respond to the letter, which was sent to some 60 companies involved in the creation and use of self-driving car technology, which supporters say holds the promise of saving tens of thousands of lives a year in auto crashes. Among the companies receiving the letter were also Honda, Toyota, Amazon, Uber and Tesla.

Ten Democratic senators signed the letter including Blumenthal and Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Chris Coons of Delaware, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada.

This article was first published by Detroit Free Press.

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