Robot Car Technology Requires Thorough Testing, Enforceable Safety Standards, Auto Safety Advocates Tell NHTSA Chief

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SANTA MONICA, CA – Auto safety advocates today told National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Mark Rosekind that “you inexcusably are rushing full speed ahead” to promote the deployment of self-driving robot car technology instead of developing adequate safety standards “crucial to ensuring imperfect technologies do not kill people by being introduced into vehicles before the technology matures.”

A letter to Rosekind from Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA administrator and President Emeritus of Public Citizen; Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety; Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog and John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director, was in response to Rosekind’s recent assertion that NHTSA cannot “stand idly by while we wait for the perfect” before self-driving robot car technologies are deployed.

“This is a false dichotomy,” the advocates wrote. “The question is not whether autonomous technology must be perfect before it hits the road, but whether safety regulators should allow demonstrably dangerous technology with no minimum safety performance standards in place, to be deployed on American highways.”

Read the advocates' letter here:

The letter said the advocates were “dumbfounded that the fatal crash of a Tesla Model S in Florida that killed a former Navy SEAL did not give you pause, cause NHTSA to raise a warning flag, bring you to ask Tesla to adjust its software to require drivers’ hands on the wheel while in autopilot mode, or even to rename its ‘autopilot’ to ‘pilot assist’ until the crash investigation is complete.”

“Instead, you doubled down on a plan to rush robot cars to the road,” the letter said.

In the Florida crash Tesla’s autopilot could not tell the difference between a white truck and a bright sky or between a big truck and a high mounted road sign. Tesla apparently knew of the defect, yet still released autopilot in beta mode and “turned its customers into human guinea pigs,” the letter said.

“Technology with such an obvious flaw should never have been deployed, and should not remain on the road,” the letter said. “But you and your colleagues have become giddy advocates of self-driving cars, instead of sober safety regulators tasked with ensuring that new systems don’t kill people. Instead of seeking a recall of Tesla’s flawed technology, you inexcusably are rushing full speed ahead.”

The four advocates warned that no technology can deliver on a promise of safety if it is rushed into vehicles with known deadly defects.

“Adequate safety standards developed in the full light of day are crucial to ensuring imperfect technologies do not kill people by being introduced into vehicles before the technology matures,” the letter said. “As a regulator, NHTSA is responsible for preventing known safety defects from killing people. Thus far, you have failed in this most fundamental mission.”

The advocates agreed that autonomous technologies can save lives someday. However, they stressed the self-driving autonomous technologies should only be implemented after thorough testing and a public rulemaking that sets enforceable safety standards.

“That is why we petitioned NHTSA for a rulemaking to set standards for automatic emergency braking, rather than rely on a meager auto industry-friendly voluntary agreement worked out behind closed doors that cannot be enforced,” the four advocates wrote. “If mandatory standards had been in place for automatic emergency brakes before the Florida crash, it might have been prevented.”

The four advocates reiterated a call for Rosekind to pledge not to parlay his support for the autonomous car industry into a lucrative new position with the industry when he leaves NHTSA, a revolving door so many of his former colleagues have recently pursued. Former NHTSA Administrator David L. Strickland is counsel and spokesman for the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, comprised of Google, Lyft, Uber, Ford and Volvo. Three other top NHTSA officials now represent Google and its self-driving robot car program before their former colleagues.

The letter concluded:

“Exaggerating safety advocates' safety concerns claiming they demand ‘perfection’ while you ignore deadly defects serves no one. The reality of the need to test and improve autonomous vehicles should inform your wish for immediate deployment of this challenging new technology that has already resulted in one death and raises the potential for many more before the possible life savings you predict can be realized.  Your careful leadership in this regard with NHTSA requiring minimum safety requirements will assure superior industry development and public acceptance sooner than rushing forward today.”


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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.

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