Safety Group to Senate: Clue in to the 'Baseless and Exaggerated Predictions' Swirling Around Autonomous Vehicles

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky

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]

Matt Posky
Matt Posky

A staunch consumer advocate tracking industry trends and regulation. Before joining TTAC, Matt spent a decade working for marketing and research firms based in NYC. Clients included several of the world’s largest automakers, global tire brands, and aftermarket part suppliers. Dissatisfied with the corporate world and resentful of having to wear suits everyday, he pivoted to writing about cars. Since then, that man has become an ardent supporter of the right-to-repair movement, been interviewed on the auto industry by national radio broadcasts, driven more rental cars than anyone ever should, participated in amateur rallying events, and received the requisite minimum training as sanctioned by the SCCA. Handy with a wrench, Matt grew up surrounded by Detroit auto workers and managed to get a pizza delivery job before he was legally eligible. He later found himself driving box trucks through Manhattan, guaranteeing future sympathy for actual truckers. He continues to conduct research pertaining to the automotive sector as an independent contractor and has since moved back to his native Michigan, closer to where the cars are born. A contrarian, Matt claims to prefer understeer — stating that front and all-wheel drive vehicles cater best to his driving style.

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  • Turf3 Turf3 on Mar 06, 2018

    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?

  • Turf3 Turf3 on Mar 06, 2018

    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.

  • 28-Cars-Later "The unions" need to not be the UAW and maybe there's a shot. Maybe.
  • 2manyvettes I had a Cougar of similar vintage that I bought from my late mother in law. It did not suffer the issues mentioned in this article, but being a Minnesota car it did have some weird issues, like a rusted brake line.(!) I do not remember the mileage of the vehicle, but it left my driveway when the transmission started making unwelcome noises. I traded it for a much newer Ford Fusion that served my daughter well until she finished college.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Couple of questions: 1) who will be the service partner for these when Rivian goes Tits Up? 2) What happens with software/operating system support when Rivia goes Tits Up? 3) What happens to the lease when Rivian goes Tits up?
  • Richard I loved these cars, I was blessed to own three. My first a red beauty 86. My second was an 87, 2+2, with digital everything. My third an 87, it had been ridden pretty hard when I got it but it served me well for several years. The first two I loved so much. Unfortunately they had fuel injection issue causing them to basically burst into flames. My son was with me at 10 years old when first one went up. I'm holding no grudges. Nissan gave me 1600$ for first one after jumping thru hoops for 3 years. I didn't bother trying with the second. Just wondering if anyone else had similar experience. I still love those cars.
  • TheEndlessEnigma A '95 in Iowa, I'm thinking significant frame and underbody rust issues.