AV START threatens public safety and driverless car potential

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In the final days of this session, the U.S. Senate may vote on legislation that would essentially turn our public streets into proving grounds for driverless cars that are not ready for prime time. The AV START Act (S. 1885) would allow for widespread sale of these nascent systems under the guise of safety, but wouldn’t require them to meet all of today’s safety standards.

Our groups have championed lifesaving technology like airbags, electronic stability control, rearview cameras, and automatic emergency braking. In the long-term, we see promise for driverless technology to reduce crashes and improve mobility for underserved populations including people with disabilities and older Americans. However, crashes and deaths involving vehicles equipped with highly and partially automated driving systems show we aren’t there yet.

{mosads}Rushing a bill to usher in mass deployment of risky, unproven systems would endanger lives. Doing so using dubious claims about safety is misleading and disingenuous at best, and reckless and deadly at worst. The artificial urgency to advance AV START is disconnected from the reality that autonomous vehicles (AVs) won’t be commonplace for decades, based on the industry’s own estimations. Additionally, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has open investigations into crashes involving cars equipped with highly and partially automated driving capabilities. The findings and recommendations produced by these investigations should be used to inform Congress and to buttress legislation which will establish landmark policy.

It’s confounding why manufacturers won’t support basic safeguards to protect their customers as well as billions in investments. AV START doesn’t require that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finalize even one federal safety standard for AV systems, despite the over 600,000 lives saved between 1960 and 2012 by vehicle safety technologies and associated federal standards.

The bill allows potentially millions of vehicles to be sold which are exempt from safety standards, including those that protect occupants in a crash or vehicles that have safety features turned off. These dangerous provisions are unwise and unnecessary. Federal law already allows manufacturers to test unlimited driverless cars exempt from safety standards as long as they aren’t sold.  

Moreover, the bill broadly blocks states from protecting their citizens — despite failing to require new federal safety standards for AVs — leaving a potentially lethal regulatory vacuum. The bill furthermore authorizes no additional funding for NHTSA, which will need substantial resources to effectively oversee AVs.

We aimed to fill gaps in the legislation by proposing common-sense requirements. For instance, AVs should be subject to a “vision test” standard for cars to verify that they can properly detect and react to their environment. We’ve recommended standards to ensure safe handoff from software to a human driver when required. And, we’ve sought standards for cybersecurity and vehicle electronics. None of these sensible ideas have been included.

The public is skeptical about AV safety. Polls from Pew, AAA and others found that most Americans don’t want to ride in one. Similarly, an ORC International poll found that 69 percent are concerned about sharing the road with AVs – up from 64 percent in January. AV START would only make things worse because it lacks vital components to bolster public confidence. There is no requirement for a database, searchable by VIN, so consumers and researchers can find out the capabilities of AVs or for AVs to capture data needed to show whether these vehicles are safe. Also, manufacturers aren’t required to give regulators any documentation to back up safety claims. Schoolchildren are taught to “show their work.” Shouldn’t manufacturers — some of which have a history of defects and cover-ups — be held to this minimum level of transparency and accountability when putting new, complex technology on public roads?

And, while we absolutely support improving mobility for members of the disability community, the bill lacks assurances that AVs will offer universal and safe access for those needing accommodations.

Driverless cars may greatly improve safety and mobility in the long-term. But it could be catastrophic to underestimate the potential for computer error as we seek to reduce driver error. Doing so could fan public skepticism and set AVs back decades. It’s time well spent to get the technology right to fulfill its enormous promise. Senators should put the brakes on AV START, reject attempts to evade regular order by tacking it onto the end of year funding measure, and advance a bill that puts safety first.

Catherine Chase is president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety; David Friedman is vice president of advocacy at Consumer Reports; Jack Gillis is executive director at Consumer Federation of America; and Jason Levine is executive director at Center for Auto Safety.


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