Consumer Groups: Hit The Brakes On Self-Driving Cars

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Washington — Consumer and safety advocates are urging the federal government to pump the brakes on self-driving cars after a series of crashes involving Tesla vehicles that were operating with their automated driving system activated, including one crash that was fatal.

The Center For Auto Safety, Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, Consumer Watchdog and Public Citizen said in a letter to President Barack Obama that the recent spate of crash involving cars that were being operated with Tesla’s Autopilot system on shows the limits of self-driving technology.

“It is time to stop your administration’s undue haste to get autonomous vehicle technology to the road,” the groups wrote to Obama and other high-ranking transportation officials in his administration.

The comments as federal regulators prepare to unveil regulations for testing of fully automated cars this summer — and they follow what is believed to be the first death in a car engaged in a semi-autonomous driving feature.

Preparations for the new rules are being closely watched by supporters and critics of the self-driving technology.

The consumer groups said in their letter to Obama that the recent Tesla crashes should give regulators pause about the readiness of the self-driving car technology. “Autopilot technology that cannot sense a white truck in its path, and that fails to brake when a collision is imminent, has no place on the public roads,” they wrote.

Federal regulators say preliminary reports show the Tesla crash happened when a semitrailer turned left in front of the car that was in Autopilot mode at a highway intersection on May 7. Florida police said the roof of the car struck the underside of the trailer and the car passed beneath. The driver was dead at the scene.

“Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor-trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied,” Tesla said in a blog posting on June 30.

The fatal crash is one of at least three high-profile accidents involving Autopilot, including a July 1 accident involving Oakland County resident and art gallery owner Albert Scaglione in his 2016 Tesla Model X. The other reported crash involving Autopilot occurred Saturday. The driver of a Tesla Model X SUV told local authorities the feature was active when the vehicle crashed into railing wires along the side of Montana State Highway 2 near Whitehall.

The consumer groups said, “Tesla wants to have it both ways, hyping the image of Autopilot as self-sufficient, but walking back any promise of safety by saying drivers must pay attention all the time.

“By releasing Autopilot prematurely in beta mode, Tesla is unconscionably using our public highways as a test lab and its customers as human guinea pigs,” they wrote to Obama.

Tesla has said it disables Autopilot by default and requires explicit acknowledgment that the system is new technology and still in a public beta phase before it can be enabled.

The consumer groups said Tesla “should recall and disable Autopilot in Tesla vehicles that are on the roads, until NHTSA and the National Transportation Safety Board have concluded their Florida investigations, and it should not be allowed on the road until proven safe,” however.

“If Autopilot is ever proven safe to deploy, Tesla must assume liability for any crashes that occur because the feature is engaged,” they wrote.

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Tesla CEO Elon Musk will not order the Autopilot feature to be turned off.

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