Opinion: We need autonomous vehicle laws

It is downright embarrassing, and frankly dangerous, that the U.S. government has delegated to car companies, and the technology industry, any consequential decisions about the next 100 years of cars and safety.

For example, Wednesday, the United States Senate held a hearing on “Federal Perspectives” on autonomous vehicle technology. One might have expected Congress to demand to hear why the Department of Transportation’s perspectives match perfectly with industry lobbyists. But, while such oversight when it comes to self-driving cars would be welcome, the current Senate majority wasn’t interested.

Despite hearing testimony from three government witnesses, there was no recognition that over the last 50 years federal safety regulations have led to a 78% reduction in the death rate related to car crashes. Today’s policymakers could chart a path of increased mobility for populations who often have no access to motor vehicles, and increase safety for everyone on the road, by insisting on consumer protections in the development of self-driving technology. Instead, the keys have been handed to industry and the “invisible hand of the market.”

That consumers are already being overlooked was made clear during Tuesday’s National Transportation Safety Board meeting, where the board voted unanimously that the probable cause of the car crash death of pedestrian Elaine Herzberg last March in Tempe, Arizona, was Uber’s inadequate safety culture for its self-driving division.

In fact, not only did Uber deploy test vehicles on public roads which had potentially life-saving automatic brake features disabled, the vehicle’s sensors rendered pedestrians outside of crosswalks essentially invisible. Amazingly, since Herzberg’s unnecessary death, no federal action has been taken to prevent any manufacturer from deploying cars that treat people like speed bumps.

This willful blindness goes beyond Uber however, as Tesla and its rule-flouting CEO Elon Musk recently announced they would deploy Fully Self Driving vehicles in 2019. Teslas have electric batteries, advanced cruise control and a large screen for playing Centipede but they are not “Fully Self Driving,” if those words mean a driver is unnecessary. Yet since the government has not stopped Tesla from false advertising practices and sales of potentially defective technology, the company must feel it has a green light to continue to deceive consumers and endanger the public, despite a rising body count.

The Department of Transportation says 80 companies are testing self-driving vehicle technology on public roads. Instead of requiring this unproven technology be tested on proving grounds, our government allows us all to function as corporate guinea pigs. Instead of designing regulations to ensure the computer-driven cars operate safely, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issues quickly ignored voluntary guidelines. The DOT has also ignored NTSB and safety groups calls for mandatory, robust data collection to be able to differentiate between manufacturers taking an approach worth encouraging and those cutting corners.

To be fair, perhaps the administration shouldn’t beat itself up too much since Congress has done literally nothing to force changes to this policy abdication. There is no self-driving car bill before the Senate, because the majority would rather blame defenders of the civil justice system for stopping the last bad bill than write a new good one. The bill from last Congress contained no rules to stopping potentially dangerous self-driving cars from being sold, and no recourse in the courts if one killed your family member.

To add insult to injury, the new draft legislative language congressional staff recently released bends over backward to exempt manufacturers from existing rules designed to protect the public — exemptions that would result in a rush to sell tens of thousands of unregulated vehicles. Another idea is to allow just about anyone to test driverless vehicles anywhere they like in the United States, regardless of whether they have any technical expertise or background producing safe auto technology.

The components needed for a reasonable self-driving car bill are not nearly as complicated as the amazing autonomous vehicle technology that could help reduce the almost 40,000 deaths, and 2 million serious injuries, we suffer every year from motor vehicle crashes. Legislation must include funding for the research which will underpin required new performance standards. To ensure safety, any regulatory scheme will need electronics and vision tests; comprehensive crash data elements, intuitive human-machine interface principles; and require cybersecurity protocols. Finally, the law must allow manufacturers to be held responsible when their experiments or deployments go badly, while requiring infrastructure improvements to support the nationwide use of autonomous vehicle technology so that it’s not only for the rich or urban dweller.  

Self-driving vehicle technology can improve the safety of our vehicles and the quality of all our lives for generations to come, but only if the perspective of the U.S. government is focused on the needs of its citizens and not corporate earnings reports.

Jason Levine is executive director of The Center for Auto Safety, an independent Washington, D.C. based nonprofit advocacy organization. 

Click here to read our commentary in The Detroit News.