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Driverless cars could boost safety recall rates

Driverless cars could boost safety recall rates
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The federal government's power to recall unsafe driverless cars in the same manner it deals with traditional automobiles could help boost safety recall rates.   

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As autonomous vehicles become more common, companies will be able to automatically deliver fixes and software updates without owners ever having to lift a finger — a potentially dramatic shift from the current system. 

 “They will be able to essentially remedy a recall without ever having to go into the dealership,” a senior Department of Transportation (DOT) official said. “You can get to 100 percent recall rates with over-the-air software updates. It becomes a lot closer to reality.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) currently estimates that over 20 percent of recalled vehicles go unrepaired and has long strived to improve those rates. 

Usually, vehicles must be brought into a dealership for repairs, and drivers may be unaware that their vehicles are even under recall. For example, the massive Takata air bag recall that is underway has left some vehicle owners waiting for months before they can get the necessary repairs.    

But Tesla recently patched security holes through an over-the-air update after a Chinese security firm discovered vulnerabilities in the system.

The automaker is also planning to deliver a major upgrade in a similar manner to its “Autopilot” feature, which has come under scrutiny since a man died in a crash that occurred while the feature was engaged. The new system will primarily rely on radar sensors instead of cameras and deliver warnings to drivers who don’t keep their hands on the steering wheel.

It’s just one of the many benefits of driverless cars being touted by federal officials, who are aggressively working to ensure the safe deployment and development of the technology. 

The administration's self-driving car guidance rolled out this week emphasizes that the NHTSA has existing, broad enforcement authority to protect the public’s safety when it comes to automated vehicles.

“Make no mistake: If a self-driving car isn’t safe, we have the authority to pull it off the road,” President Obama wrote in an op-ed for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We won’t hesitate to protect the American public’s safety.”

The improved recall rates could come at a cost, however. The use of software has also sparked cybersecurity concerns, which is why the new guidelines are asking automakers to document how they are guarding against hacking.

The NHTSA put out a separate enforcement bulletin this week to clarify how its enforcement authority relates to driverless cars. When Congress established the agency, lawmakers gave it authority over motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment, including any system, part or component of the vehicle. 

The NHTSA believes autonomous software falls under “motor vehicle equipment” and therefore it has the power to recall any autonomous driving systems that create “unreasonable risks” to safety.

 “The agency has the authority to respond to a safety problem posed by new technologies in the same manner it is able to respond to safety problems posed by more established automotive technology and equipment,” the bulletin says.

Still, the administration is seeking new tools from Congress to help oversee the operation and deployment of driverless cars, including pre-market approval authority and the power to require manufacturers to take immediate action to mitigate safety risks.

Safety advocates have responded cautiously to the new guidelines and called for more stringent safety standards.

“We are pleased that DOT is planning to address these issues and seeking public comment for this new system of transportation but it must not shy away from assuring public safety with minimum federal vehicle safety standards,” said Joan Claybrook, former administrator of NHTSA. “It should not rely instead on mere guidance.”