A coalition of auto safety advocates recently called on President Obama to stop his “administration’s undue haste to get autonomous vehicle technology to the road” until enforceable safety standards are in place. They said the administration’s autonomous vehicle “guidance” expected next week should not be issued.
“The error in rushing autonomous vehicle technology into cars and onto public highways without enforceable safety rules was underscored by the recent tragic fatal crash of a Tesla Model S in Florida while autopilot was engaged,” the coalition’s letter said.
The letter to Obama was signed by Joan Claybrook, president emeritus of Public Citizen and former NHTSA Administrator; Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety; Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Safety and Reliability; and John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog.
Read the coalition’s letter here.
The letter was sent as the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are expected this month to issue new “guidance” on autonomous vehicle technologies. DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind are scheduled to speak at an autonomous vehicle symposium on Tuesday in San Francisco and many expect the new guidance will be released then.
“Foxx and Rosekind have apparently fallen victim to the hype of the developers of self-driving cars at the expense of public safety,” the letter said. “We call on you to halt the implementation of a self-driving vehicle policy until adequate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards covering autonomous technologies are implemented through a public rulemaking process.”
Instead, the letter said, the administration’s policies on automated technologies have been “developed in the shadows.” The letter said:
“NHTSA granted Google the right to consider the robot the ‘driver’ in its autonomous vehicles in an interpretation issued without public notice, let alone the opportunity for public input. In March, NHTSA announced an agreement with 20 automakers on voluntary standards for automatic emergency braking that were substantially lower than the findings of NHTSA’s own scientists. They also circumvented the public rulemaking process for auto safety features contrary to the law. The rules of the road for automated technologies that would dramatically alter transportation in this country should be developed thoughtfully, in the light of day and with the highest level of transparency and public participation.
“Instead of hastily crafted ‘guidance,’ with inadequate opportunity for the public to comment, NHTSA should gather the facts from Tesla crashes, as well as test data from other developers of autonomous technologies, and start a formal rulemaking process that results in enforceable rules covering autonomous technology.”
Citing the May 7 fatal Tesla crash in Florida the letter said:
“According to Tesla, the vehicle was apparently unable to sense a white tractor-trailer truck against the bright sky as it made a left turn in front of the car. ‘Autopilot’ technology that cannot sense a white truck in its path, and that fails to brake when a collision is imminent, has no place on the public roads.
“Tesla wants to have it both ways, hyping the image of autopilot as self-sufficient, but walking back any promise of safety by saying drivers must pay attention all the time. The result of this disconnect between marketing and reality was the fatal crash in Florida, as well as other non-fatal Tesla autopilot crashes that have now come to light. By releasing autopilot prematurely in beta mode, Tesla is unconscionably using our public highways as a test lab and its customers as human guinea pigs.”
The advocates said Tesla should disable autopilot until it is proven safe. Noting that both Volvo and Mercedes have said they will accept liability when their self-driving technology is responsible for a crash, the safety advocates called on Tesla make the same pledge if autopilot is offered in the future. They called for the manufacturers of all self-driving cars to take responsibility for crashes cause by their autonomous technologies.
“If the manufacturers, including the high-tech companies, lack the confidence in their products to stand behind them and assume responsibility and liability when the systems they design are in control, and innocent people are injured or killed as a result, those vehicles do not belong on the road,” the letter said.
“The administration should not succumb to Silicon Valley hype about the miracles of autonomous vehicle technology. Autonomous vehicle technologies hold the promise of improving safety. But that promise can only be realized after thorough testing and a public rulemaking process that results in enforceable standards,” the letter concluded. “Allowing the DOT and NHTSA to race ahead and issue untested, unenforceable, voluntary guidelines will only result in more unnecessary tragic injuries and deaths.”