WASHINGTON — Safety advocates Monday evening urged the Senate to suspend consideration of legislation governing autonomous vehicles until the National Transportation Safety Board completes investigations into Sunday's fatal accident involving an Uber self-driving vehicle and the January crash in California involving a Tesla vehicle and a parked fire truck.
The request came on the eve of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing into ongoing challenges issuing and completing recalls of millions of vehicles with defective Takata airbag inflators, which can rupture and spew metal shards into the passenger compartment.
There are 37 million vehicles with defective Takata airbags and 42 million will be under recall by 2019 under a phased approach managed by NHTSA. The inflators have been ruled responsible for 15 deaths in the U.S. since last decade.
In a letter to committee leaders, a coalition of safety groups said the auto industry's misconduct in several safety scandals, including Takata, and NHTSA failures demonstrates that greater oversight is required during the development phase for deploying self-driving cars on public roads.
The coalition made similar points in a letter Friday to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, saying her department needed to issue mandatory rules and standards for testing autonomous vehicle technology to replace its voluntary guidelines.
"We should not allow history to repeat itself, especially one replete with industry malfeasance affecting millions of consumers and needlessly causing deaths and injuries," the public interest groups said Monday. "Now the same industry is asking the public and the government to 'trust them' as they develop and deploy new driverless car technology. Alarmingly, the DOT has been complicit in this approach. By issuing only 'voluntary guidelines,' which are grossly inadequate and lack any sort of enforcement mechanism, the DOT has shirked its safety mission and regulatory duty. The stage is now set for what will essentially be beta-testing on public roads with families as unwitting crash test dummies."
The AV START Act has strong bipartisan support in the Senate after moving its way through the Commerce Committee last fall. Full Senate approval using a procedural shortcut that requires unanimous consent is being delayed by five Democrats who have expressed misgivings about adequate consumer protections — both physical and digital — and industry accountability.
Public interest organizations this month have ramped up efforts on Capitol Hill to slow down the self-driving legislation until more consumer protections are included, while the auto industry has countered with pleas to speed up a vote and provide regulatory certainty for ongoing research and investment.
The safety advocates reiterated that the legislation should be modified to:
- Reduce the number and scope of exemptions from motor vehicle standards each company can request.
- Eliminate the prohibition on states acting to regulate autonomous vehicles in the absence of federal rules.
- Require NHTSA to issue minimum performance standards.
- Require consumers to be educated about the safety capabilities of self-driving technology, even semiautonomous vehicles, and from which vehicle standards their vehicle may be exempt.
- Address the needs of disabled communities, including cost-effective designs to accommodate wheelchair users.