Consumer Watchdog Joins Coalition Demanding DOT Exercise Strong Oversight of Robot Cars

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SANTA MONICA, CA – Consumer Watchdog has joined a broad coalition representing public health and safety professionals, bicyclists, pedestrians, smart growth advocates, consumers, environmentalists, law enforcement, first responders, and individuals with disabilities in calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation to fulfill its legal obligation to ensure effective oversight for the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

In a letter today to DOT Secretary Elaine Chao the 26 signatories to the letter warned:

“The Department and its safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), have chosen to be detached spectators instead of engaged safety regulators during one of the most crucial and critical times in the history of automobiles.  Unfortunately, inaction and indifference have grave and dangerous consequences for everyone — passengers in driverless cars, other motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and members of the disability community.”

Read the coalition’s letter here.

“Our organizations share your view that DOT should not be picking ‘winners or losers’ in the marketplace.  However, we strongly believe that DOT has a legal responsibility to evaluate and regulate technologies that are ‘safety winners or losers’, before they even enter the marketplace,” the letter said. “This is the most effective and assured approach to prevent unproven and potentially dangerous technologies from being sold to the public and allowed on public streets and highways across the country.”

“Secretary Chao’s do-nothing, hands-off approach is unconscionable,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy and Technology Project Director. “She is putting us all at risk. Would she be willing to regularly commute to work in a robot car?”

The coalition’s letter noted that Congress created NHTSA in 1966 precisely because relying solely on market forces to manufacture and sell safe vehicles was a failed approach to addressing the mounting death and injury toll on our highways.

“In 2016, over 53 million cars were subject to a government recall, the highest number in our nation’s history, because market forces failed to put public safety ahead of financial interests.  Recent examples include vehicles equipped with exploding Takata airbags, deadly GM ignition switches and polluting VW diesel engines, runaway Toyota vehicles, and other serious defects,” the letter notd. “The same industry that created and purposely hid these safety problems is now seeking and receiving from DOT a free hand to produce and sell vehicles that will contain millions of lines of code, thousands of feet of electrical circuitry and advanced electronics yet meet no minimum federal electronics requirements as is mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration or safety standards for cybersecurity protections…  In short, AV manufacturers will be subject to little, if any, government oversight and accountability as the most radical new and untested vehicles enter our highways since the invention of the passenger motor vehicle.”

Noting that public opinion polls show strong public skepticism about driverless cars, the letter warned:

“The reluctance and hesitation of the public to embrace AVs will not be overcome unless unproven, unreliable and unsafe technologies are kept out of the marketplace.  It is incumbent upon DOT to assure the public that only safe and adequately tested vehicles meeting minimum federal performance requirements are sold and operated on our streets and roads.  This is no different than DOT’s statutory mandate to protect and safeguard families using other modes of travel including plane, rail, bus, bicycle, or walking.”

The groups letter concluded:

“We urge DOT, under your watch, to encourage and oversee the development and deployment of life changing and lifesaving motor vehicle technologies by issuing minimum performance standards instead of ‘voluntary guidelines,’ providing consumers with essential information on the capabilities and limitations of autonomous vehicles, and rigorously enforcing current legal mandates for industry to immediately report problems.  Regardless of Congressional activity on AVs, DOT’s obligation to carry out its mission of ensuring a safe transportation system must be met.  The public expects and deserves no less.”

The 26 signatories signing the included:

Ralf Hotchkiss, Co-Founder                                      
Whirlwind Wheelchair International 
Mark Plotz, Conference Director
National Center for Bicyling & Walking
Georges Benjamin, MD, Executive Director             
American Public Health Association 
Christopher Michetti, MD, President
American Trauma Society
Leah Shahum, Founder and Director 
Vision Zero Network                                                 
Dominick Stokes, Vice President for
Legislative Affairs, Federal Law Enforcement
Officers Association
Paul Steely White, Executive Director,
Transportation Alternatives                                   
Catherine Chase, President
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety
Joan Claybrook, President Emeritus
Public Citizen, and Former NHTSA Administrator
Jack Gillis, Director of Public Affairs                       
Consumer Federation of America                   
Robert Weissman, President
Public Citizen
Sally Greenberg, Executive Director                         
National Consumers League                                      
Linda Sherry, Director of National Priorities 
Consumer Action
Paul Schrader, Treasurer                                           
Massachusetts Consumers Council, Inc.                    
Bill Newton, Deputy Director
Florida Consumer Action Network
Andrew McGuire, Executive Director                       
Trauma Foundation                                                   
Jason Levine, Executive Director
Center for Auto Safety
Rosemary Shahan, President                                     
Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety               
Melissa Wandall, President
National Coalition for Safer Roads
Founder, The Mark Wandall Foundation
Stephen W. Hargarten, M.D., MPH
Society for the Advancement of                                
Violence and Injury Research            
John M. Simpson, Privacy and Technology
Project Director, Consumer Watchdog
Brent Hugh, Executive Director                                
Missouri Bicycle & Pedestrian Federation                 
Cathy DeLuca, Policy & Program Director
Walk San Francisco
Dan Becker, Director                                                 
Safe Climate Campaign                                             
Irene E. Leech, President
Virginia Citizens Consumer Council
Dawn King, President 
Truck Safety Coalition


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John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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