DETROIT -- For safety advocates, the promise of expedited accident-prevention technology doesn't justify relaxed standards.
Two days after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao discussed the federal strategy to regulate autonomous vehicles at the Detroit auto show, Joan Claybrook, consumer co-chair of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, grilled lawmakers on the lack of strict requirements for self-driving cars.
The former head of NHTSA said the leniency of current bills and guidelines sacrifices safety for innovation and ignores the industry's history of safety defects.
"I think the legislation is very inadequate," Claybrook said during a panel here on Tuesday. "This ought to be a gradual implementation, not this rush-to-judgment hype about these vehicles."
In October, the U.S. Senate approved a bill to go to a floor vote that would allow manufacturers to sell as many as 80,000 self-driving cars a year and give NHTSA the authority to give companies exemptions from federal safety standards. The legislation unanimously passed the House of Representatives in September.
These allowances for selling autonomous vehicles will make consumers the "guinea pigs" for this technology, Claybrook said, adding that instances such as the Ford and Firestone tire controversy prove automakers don't have a perfect track record with consumer safety.
The reason for the relaxed standards, said U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., is to ensure American companies can keep pace with the rest of the world in developing new transportation technologies.
"Speed is of the essence for me," said Peters, who serves on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, adding that autonomous vehicle development is moving at an "exponential" pace, while regulations move at a "snail's pace."
However, to keep up with the pace of development, the legislation bypasses many basic safety standards required for vehicles on the road today, Claybrook said.
"We take vision tests when we get our license; self-driving cars won't have to do this," Claybrook said. "There's no requirement to identify vehicles, there's no data collection requirement."
The legislation also does not include additional funding allotments for NHTSA -- which is yet to find an administrator under President Donald Trump's administration. Claybrook said that without more resources, the agency won't be able to handle the new responsibilities of monitoring the safety of autonomous vehicles.
"There's nothing in this legislation to assure the agency will be properly funded and have the staff to do this work," she said.
U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., said Congress won't grant NHTSA added resources without knowing exactly what they'll be used for. This would ensure the agency remains focused on these regulations.
"We want to make sure NHTSA does have the right baseball bat to make sure standards are met," he said. "But we want NHTSA to be accountable."
Peters and Upton agreed that safety was the primary driver to speed up autonomous vehicle development and encourage manufacturers to continue to invest in it. However, this approach leaves out a crucial factor, according to Claybrook.
"Let's not have the arrogance of the algorithm," she said. "We need to do this in a way that brings the public along with us."