Consumer Advocacy Groups Want US Government To Pump The Brakes On Self-Driving Cars After Tesla Crashes

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Google's and Chrysler's plans for their self driving minivansGoogle's and Chrysler's plans for their self-driving minivans

Four consumer and safety advocacy groups wrote a joint letter to The White House asking President Barack Obama to stop allowing cars with self-driving capabilities on public roads.

The letter comes after it was discovered that Tesla’s semi-autonomous Autopilot system was involved in a fatal car accident in May. Several regulatory agencies have launched investigations into the crash and why Autopilot failed to prevent the accident.

US regulators have been pushing for the development of self-driving cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was expected to release the first federal regulations for self-driving cars this month to help pave the way for self-driving technology to hit the market.

The letter from the Center for Auto Safety, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, Consumer Watchdog, and Public Citizen said that The White House should reconsider its “undue haste to get autonomous vehicle technology on the road.”

The letter went on to say that Tesla’s Autopilot system is not ready for use on public roads and should be disabled, and that Tesla should be liable for any accidents involving Autopilot. The Autopilot system can automatically steer and adjust speeds on the highway, and can also self-park. 

Consumer Reports also published a column calling on Tesla to deactivate the Autopilot system because of safety concerns after the accidents. Tesla has countered claims that its Autopilot system is not safe by pointing out that the May accident was the first fatal crash involving Autopilot in the 130 million miles that the system has driven. In comparison, human drivers average a fatal crash every 100 million miles, Fortune reported. Another accident involving Autopilot was reported earlier this week, although the accident was not fatal.

Tesla readily admits that Autopilot is still in beta (meaning the software is still in late-stage testing), and informs its drivers of this when they activate the system in their cars. Tesla released the beta version to its drivers so it could gather large amounts of data about the system’s performance in real world scenarios. However, more accidents involving Autopilot will likely negatively impact consumers’ views on the safety of self-driving cars.

Self-driving cars will face several hurdles on the road to mass adoption, and public concerns about safety are pehaps the greatest of those roadblocks.

John Greenough, senior research analyst for BI Intelligence, has compiled a detailed report on self-driving cars that examines the major strides automakers and tech companies have made to overcome the barriers currently preventing fully autonomous cars from hitting the market. Further, the report examines global survey results showing where fully autonomous cars are highly desired.

Here are some key takeaways from the report:

  • Three barriers have been preventing fully autonomous cars from hitting the road: 1) high technological component prices; 2) varying degrees of consumer trust in the technology; and 3) relatively nonexistent regulations. However, in the past six months, there have been many advances in overcoming these barriers.
  • Technology has been improving as new market entrants find innovative ways to expand on existing fully autonomous car technology. As a result, the price of the components required for fully autonomous cars has been dropping.
  • Consumer trust in fully autonomous vehicle technology has increased in the past two years.
  • California became the first US state to propose regulations. California's regulations stipulate that a fully autonomous car must have a driver behind the wheel at all times, discouraging Google's and Uber's idea of a driverless taxi system.

In full, the report:

  • Examines consumer trust in fully autonomous vehicles
  • Identifies technological advancements that have been made in the industry
  • Analyzes the cost of fully autonomous technology and identifies how cost is being reduced
  • Explains the current regulations surrounding fully autonomous cars

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