Consumers don’t have much confidence in the safety of autonomous vehicles. But the federal bill that would create the country’s first driverless car regulations puts auto manufacturers’ needs over consumer safety.
Driverless Car Development Surges Ahead of Federal Safety Standards
In recent years, auto manufacturers and tech companies have been racing to be the first to develop a fully autonomous vehicle. General Motors, Tesla, Google, and even Uber have all been making progress toward a driverless vehicle that can be sold to and used by consumers.
But as so often happens, regulation lags behind innovation. Michigan and other states where the companies have been testing their prototypes have taken some steps toward defining the legal landscape around a car without a driver, but most rely on the expectation that safety regulation will start at the federal level.
U.S. Congress Considers Driverless Car Regulations
The 2017-2018 legislative session saw the introduction of the first federal driverless car regulations in both the House and the Senate. The House bill, the Safely Ensuring Lives Future Deployment and Research In Vehicle Evolution (SELF DRIVE) Act, H.R. 3388, was passed in September 6, 2017. The American Vision for Safer Transportation through Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act was introduced in the Senate around the same time, but the legislation has not moved so quickly there. However, some commentators believe there will be a push to pass driverless car regulations before the end of the legislative session.
Safety Advocates Say AV START Isn’t Smart for Consumers
But safety advocates say that rushing to vote is a problem for consumers. In July 2018, Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety (Advocates) commissioned a public opinion poll to guide legislators considering driverless car regulation. The results suggested that consumers may not be ready to turn over control to their cars.
69% of responders said they were concerned about sharing the road with driverless vehicles. The report discusses that without proper safety checks in place driverless cars are risks to those who ride in them as well as:
- Other motorists
Over the last few years, early versions of autonomous vehicles have contributed to the public’s anxiety. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is currently investigating 7 driverless car crashes between May 7, 2016 and May 29, 2018. Some of these crashes were fatal, and many were at high speeds, suggesting the Tesla “Autopilot” and other autonomous vehicle programming failed to brake or avoid obvious dangers.
The NTSB has not yet finished its investigations, so it is too soon to tell if there are problems with the existing autonomous vehicles or their programming. The Advocates report urges the Senate to wait for that information, before rushing into a law that will be the foundation of driverless car regulation for years to come.
Proposed Driverless Car Regulations Prioritize Innovation Over Safety
John M. Simpson, director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy and Technology Project, says that waiting isn’t enough. The problem, as he sees it, is that the “bill instead places the profits of the auto and tech industries first, not our safety.” He says the bill falls short of protecting consumers because it:
- Does not require safety certification before the vehicles are sold
- Does not give the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) authority to stop the sales of driverless vehicles if there are flaws in the technology
- Does not require the NHTSA to share vehicle safety data with researchers or consumers
- Provides only minimal rules for cybersecurity in the vehicles’ electronics
- Omits regulations on the automated vehicle’s ability to see and react to its surroundings
- Doesn’t require the vehicle to facilitate a safe “hand off” between human drivers and the autonomous systems
The massive recalls of vehicles for electronics failures in recent years show that auto makers cannot be trusted to fully test their software and hardware before putting it on the roads. Instead, they rely on the NHTSA and other consumer watch groups to do their quality checks for them. Now that those same companies are creating systems that assume key driving functions (like braking and steering), federal regulators need to have clear driverless car regulations and authority to keep motorists, and the public safe.