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Opinion: Self-Driving Car Bill Needs Amending For Safety

Op-ED by John M. Simpson of Consumer Watchdog, THE DETROIT NEWS

August 12, 2018

https://www.detroitnews.com/story/opinion/2018/08/12/self-driving-car-b…

In the future, experimental autonomous vehicle technology may help to curb preventable crash deaths and injuries. But, right now, robot cars are nowhere near ready for prime time.

The first major federal legislation to address automated vehicles (AVs), the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act, S. 1885, is pending in the U.S. Senate, sponsored by John Thune of South Dakota and Gary Peters of Michigan. Unfortunately, the Thune/Peters bill instead places the profits of the auto and tech industries first, not our safety.

At an event held in Washington, D.C. on June 13, Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said that the AV START Act will require automakers to certify that an AV has achieved a certain level of safety before it is placed on public roads. Unfortunately, that statement is simply not accurate. The bill requires manufacturers to submit a report to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on how the AV was developed, but it requires no certification or confirmation of safety before the vehicle can be sold.

Even worse, NHTSA has no authority to stop a robot car from being sold if the agency finds flaws with its technology. Peters did correctly claim that AVs will generate a great deal of data — information which can help to inform regulators. Yet his bill does not require this information be captured or mandate that it be shared with NHTSA, researchers or the public.

During a recent Senate hearing on the misuse of Facebook users’ data, Peters noted artificial intelligence is not without risk, urged transparency in the development of such technology and voiced support for protecting consumers. Peters also noted the importance of imparting critical information and instilling public confidence in new technology. Peters should apply these commonsense principles to robot cars operating on public roads, no matter the grousing of car makers in Detroit.

This is a decisive moment as the AV START Act, if enacted, will be the law of the land for the foreseeable future. That’s why it is so important that the bill establish robust safety protections. Instead, the AV START Act recklessly exempts potentially millions of vehicles from established federal motor vehicle safety standards. The industry must also be held accountable when things can, and likely will, go wrong.

Other glaring omissions from the bill include minimum rules for cybersecurity and vehicle electronics (as the Federal Aviation Administration requires for airplanes), the ability of the AVs to see and react to their surroundings, and to facilitate a safe “handoff” from robot back to human control. The legislation must also give the public and regulators comprehensive safety information about AVs. These protections will provide certainty for a public that has said repeatedly they are skeptical of this experimental technology.

A poll, conducted in May for Consumer Watchdog by Public Policy Polling found that only 19 percent of voters in Michigan said they would ride in a driverless car if it were available, compared to 69 percent who said they would not. Seventy-four perdent of Michigan voters said Congress should apply the brakes to driverless car technology until the technology is proven safe, compared to only 13 percent who think more driverless cars are needed on the roads.

The expertise of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will also be a key factor in shaping policy on driverless cars. Yet, the Senate sponsors of the AV START Act are rushing to pass it without waiting for the board to finish pending, relevant investigations involving several fatal crashes.

Prudence demands that the Senate delay consideration of the AV START Act until the NTSB concludes its work and releases its findings. Common sense demands that Peters and the other bill sponsors heed public concern and drastically improve their legislation.

John M. Simpson is director of Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy and Technology Project.

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