Federal Safety Agency Taking Wrong Turn on Robot Cars and Anti-Crash Regulation?

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SANTA MONICA, CA — Proposals floated in Detroit this week by top federal auto safety officials indicate the agency is willing to allow auto manufacturers to detour US motor vehicle laws and regulations, particularly for unproven robot cars. If true, this would be a “wrong turn” for the agency, Consumer Watchdog said today.

“With multiple instances of deadly defective cars, a historic number of recalls, the Volkswagen scandal and the report on Tuesday that Google’s robot cars had hundreds of near misses, now is not the time for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to abdicate its responsibility to enforce auto safety through binding safety rules,” said Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog, a non-profit citizen organization.  

• On Tuesday, the Detroit News reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) would “announce an industry-government consortium aimed at putting safety breakthroughs into production faster than would happen through the traditional rule-making process” and that today, NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind would “announce an industry-government consortium aimed at putting safety breakthroughs into production faster than would happen through the traditional rule-making process.”  

• Yesterday, Rosekind’s boss, Dept. of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, flanked by executives from Google, General Motors and other auto companies, promised that the agency would remove  “roadblocks” for robot cars by granting manufacturers various exemptions from legal requirements.

• The “Proactive Safety Principles” released by NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind this morning in Detroit include a “commitment to work collaboratively” between NHTSA and automakers. However, sources say that industry opposition to any standards – whether voluntary or mandatory – forced NHTSA to delay announcement of a pact to implement new safety technologies between the agency and automobile manufacturers.  

If implemented, the agency’s plans would set it on a “collision course with consumers,” Consumer Watchdog said. On Wednesday, Consumer Watchdog and other leading consumer safety advocates formally petitioned NHTSA to issue a safety rule requiring auto companies to install new breaking technologies as standard equipment.  

And the consumer advocates caution that so-called “driverless vehicles” – intensely promoted by Google – “pose unprecedented safety, privacy and ethical questions that have yet to be addressed, much less answered.” On Tuesday, Google admitted that its much-hyped “driverless vehicles” actually needed humans to take control 341 times during the previous year in order to avoid a crash or because the technology failed.

“If this is the new NHTSA unveiled this week at the Detroit auto show, Americans aren’t going to buy it,” Rosenfield said. “We urge the agency to stay the course and stick to the job of carefully and thoroughly regulating the industry.”

Petition Seeks Braking Technology Requirement

The petition submitted to NHTSA on Wednesday by Consumer Watchdog, the Center for Auto Safety and Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA Administrator and President Emeritus of Public Citizen, asks the agency to require automakers to install as standard equipment Automatic Emergency Breaking, a set of three technologies that use combinations of radar, lidar (reflected laser light) and cameras to prevent collisions.

Noting that auto manufacturers had been lobbying NHTSA for permission to “‘voluntarily’ establish safety standards in place of …mandatory safety regulation,” the Petition points out that such self-regulation pacts “are developed behind closed doors, with no public involvement; are not binding on any company or particular vehicle or model at any given time and can be unilaterally (and secretly) abandoned; cannot be enforced by any members of the public, NHTSA or any other government agency; and often do not reflect objective, scientific or empirical research.”

Read the petition here.

Report to California DMV Shows Safety Issues in Robot Cars

As part of its public safety first approach to robot cars, the California Department of Motor Vehicles requires companies testing driverless vehicles to submit an annual “disengagement” report to the DMV summarizing instances when human drivers had to take control of a self-driving robot car during testing. Seven companies that were approved for testing self-driving cars in 2014 were required to file disengagement reports with the DMV by Jan. 1.  The seven are Volkswagen Group of America, Mercedes Benz, Google, Delphi, Tesla, Bosch and Nissan. The reports, released last Tuesday, showed that Google led in “disengagements”: over the 15 months ending on November 30, 2015, its robot technology failed and handed control to the driver 272 times and a test driver felt compelled to intervene 69 times.

Read more information on the California autonomous vehicle disengagagement reports.

Proposed regulations covering self-driving robot cars issued in December by the California DMV require the robot cars to have a steering wheel and pedals and be occupied by a licensed driver capable of taking control of the vehicle.

“The spectacle of top federal auto safety officials getting together with executives from the industry they are supposed to be regulating at an industry trade show and bubbling on about robot cars is troubling,” Consumer Watchdog said.  “Auto safety policy should be developed in Washington, D.C., not made in Detroit.”


Harvey Rosenfield
Harvey Rosenfield
As Consumer Watchdog's founder, Harvey Rosenfield is one of the nation's foremost consumer advocates. Trained as a public interest lawyer, Rosenfield authored Proposition 103 and organized the campaign that led to its passage by California voters in 1988 despite over $80 million spent in opposition (still a record).

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