Safety groups slam Senate bill for lax oversight of self-driving cars
WASHINGTON -- Consumer and safety advocates are pressing Congress to scale back the number of safety exemptions for autonomous vehicles in legislation now under consideration, saying they would result in mass deployment of new technology without adequate safety protections, government oversight or industry accountability.
The Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on the AV START Act, which encourages autonomous vehicle development in part by granting each developer exemptions to annually operate up to 100,000 vehicles, phased in over three years, that don't meet current federal motor vehicle safety standards. The SELF-DRIVE Act, passed by the House during the summer, also allows a similar number of exemptions.
"Unfortunately, this bill takes a hands-off approach to hands-free driving," Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said on a conference call with reporters.
Automakers and technology companies argue large numbers of exemptions are necessary to validate the artificial intelligence controlling the vehicles and encourage investment.
The Senate and House are attempting to set rules of the road for development and deployment of self-driving cars, which have the potential to revolutionize transportation, reduce highway deaths and injuries, improve congestion and air quality, and reorient land use.
Public interest groups say the Senate bill has other flaws, such as not requiring manufacturers to clearly spell out to consumers the capabilities and limitations of automated vehicles they purchase, or the government to collect real-world performance data so it can conduct independent research.
They point to National Transportation Board findings last month that Tesla's Autopilot system was a contributing factor in a 2016 crash involving an autonomous Model S because it facilitated inattention and operated outside its designed capabilities.
"The American public will be the crash-test dummies for self-driving cars if automakers aren't held to higher standards," Joan Claybrook, the former president of Public Citizen and head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said.
Opponents of the existing bill include Consumers Union, the Center for Auto Safety, the Consumer Federation of America and the National Consumers League.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said he planned to introduce amendments on Wednesday that would require consumer education on how to safely operate self-driving cars, direct NHTSA to establish federal cybersecurity standards for cars and protect the privacy of consumer information captured by vehicles for entertainment or tracking purposes.
The recent history of deadly safety defects, recalls and industry cover-ups combined with inadequate federal oversight demonstrates the need for tighter regulatory control, especially as sophisticated computerization increases vehicle complexity, the safety groups said.
They recommended that Congress significantly increase NHTSA's funding and require the establishment of a specialized autonomous vehicle department, with highly trained and experienced staff, to oversee autonomous vehicle standards.
"Without such a department, it is too easy for the car and technology companies to forge ahead with unregulated products using the excuse that NHTSA simply can't understand or evaluate these products," Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for the Consumer Federation of America, said in a statement. "Government ignorance is a recipe for tragic consequences -- consequences that, ironically, will hamper the development of this life-saving technology. Even a small number of tragedies could negatively influence the public support needed to bring the best of this technology forward."
The House and Senate bills differ in how the exemption caps would be increased. The House version meters out exemptions for companies that have applied, starting at 25,000 in the first year, and growing to to 50,000 in Year 2 and 100,000 in Years 3 and 4.
The Senate version authorizes the Department of Transportation to grant 50,000 exemptions in Year 1, 75,000 in Year 2 and 100,000 in Years 3 and 4. It automatically raises the exemption cap across the board, meaning a company that didn't apply for an exemption until the second year would automatically be eligible to put 75,000 cars on the road instead of starting with 50,000 vehicles.
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