NHTSA Must Enact Motor Vehicle Safety Standards for Robot Cars, Consumer Watchdog Says

Published on

WASHINGTON, DC — Consumer Watchdog today called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to enact Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards covering autonomous vehicles, saying that a lack of enforceable performance standards covering the vehicles "threatens the safety of the nation's highways."

In conjunction with Consumer Watchdog's planned NHTSA testimony, the group released a video showing that Tesla promoted its "Autopilot" feature with inflated claims and Elon Musk's wife driving with her hands off the wheel. However, after the deaths of two drivers, one in Florida and one in China, Musk blamed them for not keeping their hands on the wheel.

View Consumer Watchdog's Tesla video here:

NHTSA has recently released its Federal Automated Vehicle Policy, but compliance by manufactures is completely voluntary. The agency held a hearing on the policy today, where Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project Director, John M. Simpson, planned to outline the public interest group's concerns. He said the policy "merely sets forth a laundry list of policy concerns and aspirations."

"Essentially NHTSA is asking manufacturers to please drop the agency a letter outlining how they have dealt with 15 issues as part of a so-called "safety assessment" said Simpson. "Apparently all it takes to deploy a fully automated robot car is a 47 cent postage stamp. Even worse, responding to NHTSA's request is completely voluntary."

Read Simpson's NHTSA testimony here:

Simpson told NHTSA in his testimony that the 15 issues outlined in the safety assessment" are important, which is precisely why NHTSA must enact mandatory Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards in most – if not all – of the 15 areas proposed in the safety assessment. He cited item 11 "ethical issues" as an example.

He said:

"What we are talking about here is – simply put – who a robot driver "decides" to kill, when confronted with that choice. Does the robot value the safety and lives of the car's occupants over the lives of pedestrians? At a minimum there must be an FMVSS requiring full disclosure of the robot's algorithms that would make such a profound decision.

"The public has a right to know when a robot car is barreling down the street whether ]it's prioritizing the life of the passenger, the driver or the pedestrian, and what factors it takes into consideration. If these questions are not answered in full light of day, NHTSA need look no further than the Pinto to see that corporations will program these cars to limit their own liability, not to conform with social mores, ethical customs or the rule of law."

Consumer Watchdog has closely monitored the testing of self-driving cars in California and successfully pressed the Department of Motor Vehicles to make public reports of crashes involving the robot cars and annual "disengagement reports" detailing times when the autonomous technology being tested failed. Those reports have shown the self-driving technology was not able to deal adequately with such everyday things as low hanging branches, cyclists, construction zones or reckless behavior by others. For example, in 450,000 miles, Google's test cars disengaged from the technology in favor of a human driver 350 times.

Consumer Watchdog said NHTSA must require disengagement reports similar to California's, including detailed video, lidar and radar records of crashes, be part of automakers submissions to illuminate how they are addressing Human Machine Interface and Crashworthiness concerns. Beyond the disengagement reports, NHTSA should collect and make public technical data and video associated with any incident. "See No Evil, Hear No Evil," should not be NHTSA's motto, Consumer Watchdog said.

In his testimony Simpson made these additional points:

— Over the years FMVSS covering the performance of such important innovations as seat belts, air bags, electronic stability control and rear view video cameras have greatly improved the safety of autos and their passengers.

— FMVSS covering HAVs are necessary and must be based on performance. Performance standards have the added benefit of spurring innovation as manufactures strive to develop the most efficient way to meet the standard.

— Even without FMVSS covering HAVs in effect yet, NHTSA has important enforcement authority through recalls when a defect poses a safety hazard.

Consumer Watchdog believes it was a positive development that NHTSA issued a separate enforcement bulletin with the Autonomous Vehicle Policy reiterating its recall authority. NHTSA should recall Tesla's Autopilot.

"Innovation will thrive hand-in-hand with thoughtful, deliberate regulation," Simpson concluded. "The FMVSS process, when properly implemented and continuously enforced, has served Americans well for the last fifty years. To summarize, the development of the necessary FMVSS covering HAVs must be the agency's immediate priority."


Visit our website at

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

Latest Videos

Latest Articles

In The News

Latest Report

Subscribe to our newsletter

To be updated with all the latest news, press releases and special reports.

More articles