Watchdog Fights Accelerating Autonomous Vehicle Testing Pace

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Google pushing for ability to accelerate development

The idea of being able to turn over all of the driving responsibilities to an autonomous fleet of vehicles gets major endorsements from federal safety officials, at least half of drivers, automakers and last, but certainly not least, Google.

In fact, recently Google officials complained they felt like they were being held back in the development of their vehicle. Despite a dozen accidents – none of which were deemed Google’s fault – and most recently, a situation where a policeman pulled over the autonomous vehicle for driving too … wait for it … slowly, the tech giant wants to speed up development.

Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is a staunch ally in the move toward autonomous vehicles, believing they could virtually eliminate traffic accidents and, by extension, the thousands of fatalities that occur on U.S. highways and byways annually.

Despite the wave of support, there is a small and now vocal minority calling for a slow and steady pace for autonomous vehicle development. Consumer Watchdog, a consumer advocacy group, is pushing back against Google and its efforts to speed up the process of bringing an autonomous vehicle to market.

“Google may have its foot on the accelerator pedal in its mad drive to develop robot cars, but the DMV has admirably served as traffic cop and set reasonable limits that have genuinely protected public safety,” wrote John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project director, in a letter to the DMV.  “We call on you to stay on this responsible course and put public safety first.”

Simpson and the organization felt compelled to appeal to the California Department of Motor Vehicles to not speed up the testing process after Google expressed its frustration and, at the same time, federal safety officials suggested that accelerating the testing process may be in order.

U.S. Department of Transportation spokesperson Suzanne Emmerling told the Associated Press recently that the pace of development is forcing the agency to rethink its testing policies on the federal level.

“Breathtaking progress has been made,” Emmerling wrote. She said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx ordered his department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration update its 2013 policy “to reflect today’s technology and his sense of urgency to bring innovation to our roads that will make them safer.”

It’s unclear what the new policy will be, though the tone of the statement signaled that Foxx is interested in endorsing the technology. Specific language the traffic safety administration in revisiting holds that states which do permit public access after testing should require that a qualified driver be behind the wheel.

Currently, individual states are driving the rules and regulations of testing. However, the federal call for stepping it up caused officials in California to reconsider its testing mandates. As part of that, it asked NHTSA for advice about how to proceed. That forced California Watchdog to up its input level in the process, supporting the state’s currently tortoise-rather-than-hare approach.

“We commend the DMV for its thoughtful and thorough approach, and urge that you continue to act in the public’s interest, rather than succumbing to corporate pressure. It is imperative that the DMV reject the Internet giant’s self-serving lobbying,” the letter said.

“Quite correctly your department is acting at a deliberate pace to ensure that autonomous vehicle regulations for public use adequately protect our safety. The important thing is getting the regulations right, not rushing them out the door.”

The testing rules have important safeguards, but should still be improved, Consumer Watchdog said:  “As you know, Consumer Watchdog has petitioned the department to amend the testing rules to require that police investigate any robot car crash. We also ask that the rules require copies of any technical data and video associated with a robot car crash be turned over to the department. We look forward to a positive response to our petition.”

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