Santa Monica Group Promps Federal Safety Hearings on Self-Driving Vehicles

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March 25, 2016 — Would you feel safe in a completely driver-less car? Consumer Watchdog, a Santa Monica-based nationally recognized advocacy group prone to litigating issues involving taxpayers and shoppers, says no way.

The nonprofit organization on Ocean Park Boulevard has been engaged in a months-long battle to put the brakes on the pace of rapidly moving autonomous vehicle technology, and this week announced its efforts have prompted the federal government to hold hearings on the issue.

In a letter sent earlier this month to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) Administrator Mark Rosekind, Consumer Watchdog called on the federal government to open the regulation process for self-driving cars.

The letter came after a report and video filed by Google with the California Department of Motor Vehicles in February showed one of the company's self-driving cars involved in a collision with a bus in Mountain View.

Google, which is often cited by Consumer Watchdog in its public pronouncements on the autonomous vehicles issue, is among some ten companies field testing self-driving cars on California's public roads and reporting results regularly to the DMV.

In October, Consumer Watchdog announced that the DMV, at the organization's suggestion, would post all collision reports involving autonomous vehicles on the state agency's website.

John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog executive director, said in the March 3 letter to Foxx and Rosekind the video of the bus collision supports his group's demands for a slow and methodical process for drafting future regulations on autonomous vehicles, one that is “transparent, with maximum public participation.”

Rosekind responded on March 15, writing that the NHTSA has agreed with the recommendation, Simpson announced Monday.

“Your suggestions fit well with our efforts to fulfill the agency's goals,” Rosekind wrote. “We are enhancing our public engagement strategy and will announce specific details in the coming weeks.”

Since last year, Consumer Watchdog, along with Consumers Union, the Center for Auto Safety and Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, has urged the federal government and Congress not to rush self-driving vehicle technology by allowing companies now developing the systems to sidestep regulatory processes.

Specifically, Consumer Watchdog opposes the concept of removing humans completely from the driving equation, leaving all the decisions up to computers, as envisioned by the boldest autonomous vehicle engineers.

The Santa Monica consumers' group believes all self-driving cars, which it calls “robot cars,” should have a steering wheel and gas and brake pedals, along with a licensed driver behind the wheel ready to take over in an emergency.

Simpson said the state DMV's proposed new rules for autonomous vehicles include those requirements.

His advocacy group cites reports filed by driver-less car developers showing that humans had to take over control hundreds of times to avoid collisions during field testing of the vehicles.

Last week, the NHTSA announced it will hold a daylong hearing on self-driving vehicle technology April 8 in Washington, D.C., to gather public input “as it develops guidelines for the safe deployment of automated safety technology,” the agency said in a news release.

A second hearing is scheduled for California, although no date or location had been set as of Thursday, the agency said.

While his group applauded the NHTSA's decision to hold public hearings on self-driving vehicle technology, Simpson said the federal government should follow California's lead and adopt the DMV's proposed rules nationwide.

“Rosekind can demonstrate the commitment is real, and not just empty words, by strongly backing the California DMV’s proposed autonomous vehicle regulations that would require a licensed driver behind a steering wheel and brake pedal capable of taking control when the robot car technology fails,” Simpson said.

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