Consumer Group Says Self-Driving Cars Need Steering Wheels, Too

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As companies from Google to Tesla Motors race to develop self-driving cars, the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog has a helpful suggestion: Don’t leave out the steering wheel.

Or the brake pedal.

The consumer advocacy group on Tuesday called for regulations requiring all autonomous cars to have those basic components so their drivers (or passengers, or occupants, depending on how you think about it) can take control if needed. The group also wants limits on how companies use the vast amount of data that self-driving cars will generate about their owners’ daily lives.

Requiring a car to contain a steering wheel may sound like the definition of regulatory overkill. But Google’s latest version of an autonomous vehicle didn’t include the wheel or the brake pedal until California officials started requiring it last year. And Google reported Monday that 11 of its experimental cars had been involved in minor accidents, although the company said none of those accidents was the car’s fault.

“It’s the height of folly to put a vehicle on the road that a human being can’t … take control of,” said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s director of privacy projects. “Ultimately, down the road, we think this is a technology that when coupled with humans can improve safety. The problem is we’re not there yet.”

He also called on Google to release detailed information on all accidents involving its cars.

DMV rules

The regulations that forced Google to add steering wheels, brake pedals and accelerators to its vehicles were adopted last year by the California Department of Motor Vehicles to govern testing of self-driving cars in the state. Consumer Watchdog wants that same protection extended to all autonomous cars sold to consumers, as the cars leave the lab and enter the marketplace.

The group also wants to prevent companies from using cars to spy on their owners. Self-driving vehicles will amass detailed information about the lives of their people who use them, data that could be valuable to advertisers or others.

“Will information about how often you happen to drive to a liquor store be provided to your health insurance company?” said Carmen Balber, Consumer Watchdog’s executive director. “There are infinite possibilities for the misuse of this data.”

The Bay Area has become a hotbed of research into self-driving cars. Tesla Motors, based in Palo Alto, is developing a hands-free, autopilot mode for its electric Model S sedan, testing the system on road trips between San Francisco and Seattle. Mercedes-Benz leased an abandoned naval weapons depot in Concord last year as a test track for its own version of the technology.

Accident details

After the Associated Press reported this week that Google’s cars had been involved in a handful of accidents, the director of the company’s self-driving car program posted information about the accidents on the website Medium. Google’s cars have experienced 11 accidents in the program’s six years of testing, and director Chris Urmson said all of them resulted in minor vehicle damage, with no injuries.

None of the accidents, he said, was the fault of the self-driving car. Instead, Google’s cars had been rear-ended seven times (usually at traffic lights), sideswiped “a couple of times” and hit by another car that rolled through a stop sign. The company’s cars have logged 1.7 million miles on the road, nearly a million of those driving autonomously. As required by the state, the cars have a specially trained driver ready to take control if something goes wrong.

“All the crazy experiences we’ve had on the road have been really valuable for our project,” Urmson wrote in his post. “We have a detailed review process and try to learn something from each incident, even if it hasn’t been our fault.”

David R. Baker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @DavidBakerSF

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