Consumer Groups: Self-Driving Car Occupants Are Guinea Pigs

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Obama administration want self-driving cars on the roads as soon as possible, but not everyone is in such a rush. Auto safety organizations say the government is rushing autonomous technology into cars without safety rules necessary for the technology.

In a letter sent to President Obama, the consumer organizations pointed to the death of Joshua Brown while using the "Autopilot" system in a Tesla Model S. Brown was killed when his car slammed into a tractor-trailer crossing a highway, sheering the roof off the Model S.

Preliminary analysis shows Tesla's Autopilot feature was activated but didn't "see" the truck and trailer crossing the road.

The letter to Obama was signed by Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA administrator and president emeritus of Public Citizen, Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Safety and Reliability and John M. Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog.

The letter says the administration's self-driving car policies have been "developed in the shadows" and that apparently NHTSA has fallen victim to the driverless car "hype."

Much of the problem, according to the consumer groups, comes down to the lack of normal rule-making and public input typically used in the U.S. automotive industry. The government has abandoned normal procedures and handed control to driverless car companies, including by granting Google the right to call a car computer the "driver" in self-driving test cars.

The groups also point to a voluntary agreement between NHTSA and 20 automakers concerning technology called automatic emergency braking. The braking feature cuts down on rear-end collisions and resulting injuries but instead of creating rules to mandate the feature, NHTSA is allowing manufacturers to voluntarily install the technology.

The letter to Obama says the Tesla Model S crash shows how automakers can promote the benefits of automated technology, then in the same breath tell consumers safety isn't guaranteed and that a driver must pay attention every second.

According to the groups, NHTSA can put an end to the contradictory positions by gathering precise data and creating rules every driverless car company must follow. Saying that Tesla is using the highways as test labs and customers as human guinea pigs, the groups want Tesla to stand behind its automated technologies as other automakers have promised to do.

Those automakers are Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, both which have said they will accept liability when their self-driving technology is responsible for a crash.

The letter to Obama didn't deny the possibilities of autonomous vehicles, but the consumer groups made clear that concise thinking is needed for the process, not hype from driverless car companies and corporations.

"The administration should not succumb to Silicon Valley hype about the miracles of autonomous vehicle technology. Autonomous vehicle technologies hold the promise of improving safety. But that promise can only be realized after thorough testing and a public rulemaking process that results in enforceable standards."

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