Congress is trying to pass legislation to make self-driving cars safer. It doesn't go far enough

  • Current versions of legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and pending in the U.S. Senate will not achieve the goal of making self-driving cars safer.
Scenes of daily life at Google X in Mountain View
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Congress is right to focus on developing a national policy to promote the safe deployment of autonomous vehicles (AVs).

However, the current versions of legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives (H.R. 3388, the SELF DRIVE Act) and pending in the U.S. Senate (S.1885, the AV START Act) will not achieve this goal.

In fact, our organizations have proposed several provisions which provide essential changes to both bills that will encourage new technologies and ensure public safety. Fully self-driving AVs have the long-term potential to reduce the more than 37,000 annual highway deaths, but even auto and tech companies admit that we are still many years, if not decades, away.

Therefore, it is critically important that AVs must not be introduced into the market until they are thoroughly tested and proven safe. Rather than rush the sale and deployment of unproven technology, our government should take the time to develop tests and minimum standards to ensure its reliability and lifesaving potential.

Moreover, since these bills were introduced, at least seven crashes involving cars either equipped with driverless capabilities or technology masquerading as self-driving resulting in several deaths and injuries have occurred.

Five of these crashes are under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), our nation's preeminent independent safety investigator. These investigations should be completed and the findings reviewed before rushing through legislation that sets national policy for decades to come.

Serious concerns have already been raised about flaws in the AV START Act by 40 major safety, consumer, public health, bicyclist, pedestrian, environmental, law enforcement and disability rights organizations as well as families affected by motor vehicle crashes. And they are not alone, as numerous public opinion polls show that the public is troubled about taking a hands-off approach to AVs.

According to a recent independent survey commissioned by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, 63 percent oppose mass exemptions from current safety standards; 80 percent support minimum performance requirements for computer systems that operate driverless cars, similar to computers operating commercial airplanes; 87 percent want online information about AV capabilities; 75 percent oppose disconnecting steering, gas and brake pedals when the computer is in control; 81 percent support strong cyber security standards; and 84 percent support rules to ensure that human drivers are alert to be able to safely take control from the AV.

The House and Senate bills have major safety gaps which need to be addressed to allow for the successful deployment of AVs as well as consumer acceptance of AVs, including:

  • The bills allow potentially millions of vehicles to be sold which are exempt from existing safety standards, including those that ensure occupant protection;
  • There are no minimum requirements for critical safety issues such as cyber security and electronics, driver engagement in vehicles that require both computer and human operations or what the vehicle can "see" or detect when driving on all kinds of roads, weather conditions and times of the day and night;
  • Consumers and relevant federal agencies will be left in the dark without essential information and comprehensive data;
  • Manufacturers will be able to unilaterally "turn off" safety systems including braking and steering when the car is being operated by a computer;
  • The bills fail to provide meaningful safeguards for Level 2 "semi-autonomous" vehicles, like the Tesla "Autopilot" system which has been involved in a number of crashes resulting in at least two deaths;
  • AVs offer the promise of mobility for older populations and people with disabilities; however, the bills do not ensure access or safe conditions for their use;
  • The U.S. Department of Transportation lacks resources and authorities to effectively oversee AV safety; and,
  • State action to protect their citizens is preempted, even though the federal government has not issued regulations, nor do the bills require such rules prior to deployment.

Congress stands at a critical juncture in the future development of automobiles. Legislation which makes our country a leader in developing both innovative and safe technologies should be the priority of everyone.

Commentary by Catherine Chase, president, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, David Friedman, director, Cars and Product, Policy and Analysis, Consumers Union, Jack Gillis, incoming president, Consumer Federation of America, and Jason Levine, executive director, Center for Auto Safety.