By on March 5, 2018

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Last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration embraced autonomous technology by redefining how it categorized cars. Spurred by automakers and tech companies, the government has opened its eyes to this new technology and seen it as a way to potentially save lives by reducing the number of roadway accidents caused by human error.

Congress has been confronted with numerous pieces of legislation on the matter, too — prospective laws that would allow automakers to put hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles on the street, without the need to adhere to existing safety regulations. Many have called the move necessary if the United States hopes to be the first country to produce a truly self-driving car and start saving some lives.

It sounds almost too good to be true, and some claim it actually is. A group of public interest organizations is attempting to sound the bullshit alarm, claiming automakers are misleading government officials in the hopes of developing and profiting from unproven technology. 

In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Democratic leader Charles Schumer, the coalition voiced its strong objection to the lack of safety protections in the Senate driverless car legislation (AV START Act, S. 1885), asking lawmakers to chill out on any new legislation until they’ve taken a long, hard look at autonomous vehicle technology.

“Baseless and exaggerated predictions about the readiness and reliability of driverless car technology are propelling legislation that significantly strips the current federal regulatory system of its appropriate authority and oversight thereby endangering the safety of everyone — both motorists and non-motorists,” the letter read.

The coalition, which is associated with Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, is comprised of 27 groups representing public health and safety, bicyclists, pedestrians, consumers activists, environmental interests, disability communities, fire and rescue responders, law enforcement, and the families of autonomous crash victims.

“The legislation attempts to solve a ‘problem’ that doesn’t exist. The deployment of driverless cars is not impeded by regulatory requirements,” the letter continues. “Rather, the industry is faced with the complex challenge of developing driverless technologies and solving a myriad of operational problems including weather, traffic signals, and cybersecurity, among others. Additionally, experts have identified the difficult and potentially fatal flaw of autonomous vehicle technology to accurately detect and react to bicyclists on the road.”

It goes on to cite a handful of incidents where existing autonomous tech caused accidents and cited numerous examples suggesting development isn’t nearly as far along as automakers want the public to believe. There’s also a list of demands for ensuring the safe deployment of these vehicles.

Under current laws, manufacturers can petition for permission to sell up to 2,500 safety-exempt cars per year for two years. However, the AV START Act would allow the Department of Transportation to up that figure to 80,000 vehicles per manufacturer after three years, including vehicles that could be sold to the public.

One of the safety coalition’s demands centers around this. The group urges lawmakers to reduce the number of vehicles exempted from safety standards. It also wants Section 7 omitted from the bill, which allows AV manufacturers to turn off vehicle systems at their discretion, including the steering wheel and brakes.

The group also asked Congress to establish a minimum performance standard for autonomous vehicles to adhere to, ensure states have the rights to protect their own citizens, ensure adequate consumer information on the subject, provide the NHTSA with the resources and tools it needs to effectively do its job, and incorporate Level 2 autonomy in critical safety provisions.

“We urge you to disregard the industry’s artificial urgency about eliminating what they label as ‘regulatory roadblocks’ and allow time to make needed improvements to the AV START Act. These changes will not prevent the deployment of driverless cars in any way, but they will prevent major mistakes that could result in flawed decision-making, faulty technology, avoidable fatalities and public rejection.”

[Image: Toyota Research Institute]

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16 Comments on “Safety Group to Senate: Clue in to the ‘Baseless and Exaggerated Predictions’ Swirling Around Autonomous Vehicles...”

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    If all liability in a crash is assigned to the AV mfr, we’ll get a better product.

  • avatar

    Safety exempt vehicles…..I don’t know what more you’d need to determine simple negligence.

    • 0 avatar

      I had to lookup what “safety exempt vehicles” really meant, and it included vehicles with no steering wheel or brake pedals. It’s supposed to allow faster deployment of test vehicles, but it’s not clear to me that should the vehicle break down, how do you maneuver it onto a tow truck? If it gets side swiped and knocked into a ditch, how do you get it out?

      If car companies take shortcuts like removing safety standards, they undermine their own cause.

  • avatar

    I’m of two minds about the whole thing. On the one hand, human drivers are generally terrible, so it is a pretty low bar. On the other hand, so are computers and programmers. And no matter how good the technology, bad things WILL happen. Cars have to be cheap enough to be affordable so how good can the tech really be? We will probably get a reduction in some kinds of accidents, and replace some of them with other kinds. And the potential for hacking autonomous cars frankly scares the crap out of me.

    Ultimately all I really want is a car that can completely drive itself while I take a nap on Interstate highways in relatively good weather. I can do the rest.

    • 0 avatar

      “On the other hand, so are computers and programmers.”

      Keep in mind that a lot of this is driven by machine learning*. The computer is teaching itself how to drive, it’s not being programmed to drive.

      * Machine learning is a field of computer science that gives computer systems the ability to “learn” (i.e. progressively improve performance on a specific task) with data, without being explicitly programmed

      • 0 avatar

        @jmo: yeah, but there is still a huge amount of human involvement and human coding. There are also competing models. I have issues with some of the models they are using. Here’s an article on just one of the issues:

        Security is making progress with Distributed Ledger Technology. I think sensors have a long ways to go, but I think they’ll be vastly better than any human senses.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree. Instead of trying to have it all a good first step would be to eliminate accidents on rural interstates. These are generally the safest roads we have so there is really not many reasons for accidents other than human error and probably most often caused by inattention and drowsiness. Pie in the sky for me would to have a network of interstates that are strictly for vehicles equipped with autonomous features and are fully controlled and interlinked while on said roads. It would have the advantages of a train where you can sit back and relax or sleep until you exit for you local destination at which time you take back control and you would also have the advantage of a vehicle in that you are in control of your own timetable choosing when you want to leave. Also, this should allow for much higher speeds as everything is working as a system. Just think how nice it would be to travel at say 120 mph and arrive twice as fast. I think we would have all the tech and then some needed for a system that provides the “rails” to drive on. Not a whole lot for a computer to do if it knows were all the other cars are and has “guides” in the road to follow.

  • avatar

    Safety exempt. “It’s Festival! It’s Festival!”. These auto-pods, at speed, in less than ideal weather? If we don’t end up with widespread carnage, it’ll be widespread car jams when they lay on the brakes every five feet. In the snowstorm we just had here Friday and Saturday, any Auto-Pod LTZ (with auto-pod cold weather group) would have been immobile.

    • 0 avatar

      …or how about merrily driving into a flooded underpass or road.

      • 0 avatar

        @ncs – “…or how about merrily driving into a flooded underpass or road.”

        I recall when Google Maps was new, it would direct drivers to flooded highways because, well… traffic was light there! In the event of a rainstorm, locals knew to avoid any highway with the name “brook” or “river” in it. AI, not so much. To be fair though, Google Maps has improved a lot over the years.

  • avatar

    Autonomous vehicles is legal boondoggle

  • avatar

    Autonomous driving will not work without a large amount of transportation infrastructure and legal rigamarole, and even then, it will not work.

    Is there a bigger case of vaporware in the modern era? Not a cent of public money or accommodation for this nonsense.

  • avatar

    What worries me is where will the bar be set on the safety of autonomous systems. It makes a huge difference whether the reference standard includes or excludes drunk or drugged drivers, reckless teenagers, the senile, and drivers who pay more attention to their phones than to their driving. To me, the appropriate standard is to do at least as well as a competent, conscientious, experienced driver who makes an occasional error.

  • avatar

    How long and how much investment will it take to reach a minimally sized critical mass to allow for autonomous cars to link up into some sort of coordinated driving pattern? Nationwide vehicle turnover will take many many decades at best due to multiple factors. That means a few autonomous cars will need to navigate against a sea of human drivers for a long time to come.

  • avatar

    Well, we all know that consumer-grade computer hardware or software never fails, so we can all rest easy.

    Personally, I am all in favor of autonomous vehicles, but only if they are required to be painted with diagonal black and yellow stripes and carry a rotating red beacon on top. Why has no one (but me) proposed this?

  • avatar

    Well, we all know that consumer-grade computer hardware or software never fails, so we can all rest easy.

    Personally, I am all in favor of autonomous vehicles, but only if they are required to be painted with diagonal black and yellow stripes and carry a rotating red beacon on top. Why has no one (but me) proposed this? That’s how AGVs in factories are typically set up.

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