Don’t Rush Robot Car Rules, Consumer Watchdog Tells Transportation Secretary Foxx

Put Focus On Enforceable Standards For Automated Technologies That Improve Safety

SANTA MONICA, CA – Self-driving robot cars are not ready for public use and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) must not rush to implement regulations covering the vehicles as it updates its policy on automated vehicle technologies, Consumer Watchdog said today.

In a letter to Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director John M. Simpson also called for formal rulemakings to set enforceable standards for automated technologies that enhance safety.

“Automated technologies – some of which are already being deployed such as automatic emergency braking – can clearly improve auto safety,” wrote Simpson. “Consumer Watchdog is concerned that success with such automated features could prompt NHTSA to prematurely recommend approval of the general public use of fully autonomous self-driving robot cars.”

Last week Foxx ordered NHTSA to update its more than two-year-old “Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles.”  Updating the policy makes sense, Consumer Watchdog said, but is imperative that any updates continue to put safety ahead of all other considerations.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s letter here:

NHTSA’s current policy on self-driving robot cars urges the states allow them only to be used on public roads for testing purposes. Moreover, the policy says, “NHTSA strongly recommends that states require that a properly licensed driver be seated in the driver’s seat and ready to take control of the vehicle while the vehicle is operating in self-driving mode on public roads.”

Consumer Watchdog’s letter stressed the importance of maintaining those key safety recommendations for self-driving robot cars as the policy is updated:

“As you know, most of the testing of robot cars on public highways has taken place in California under regulations promulgated by the state Department of Motor Vehicles. The California rules reflect NHTSA’s recommendations and allow only testing of robot cars and then only with a licensed and trained driver behind the steering wheel capable of taking control as necessary.

“We have closely monitored self-driving robot car testing in our state and there is nothing yet to suggest that the vehicles are ready for safe operation by the general public.  Nor is there adequate information to suggest that test vehicles should be allowed to operate on public roads without a driver capable of taking control from the autonomous technology when needed…

“Do not put the interests of the robot car developers ahead of the public’s safety in the face of ongoing pressure from self-driving robot car manufacturers like Google, which has promised a vehicle without a steering wheel or brake pedal.”

Consumer Watchdog’s letter also urged NHTSA to hold a public workshop to get input from various stakeholders as the agency updates its “Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles.” The letter concluded:

“While regulations for the public use of self-driving robot cars are premature, there are automated technologies that improve safety such as automatic emergency braking and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication.  NHTSA should open formal rulemakings to set enforceable standards as such automated technologies are shown to be safety enhancing and are implemented.

“Innovation can thrive hand-in-hand with thoughtful regulation.  Your 2013 ‘Preliminary Statement Concerning Automated Vehicles’ is an example of just that approach and we are seeing the positive results as automated technology continues to develop. Google may want to put the pedal to the metal as it rushes robot cars out the door, but a thoughtful, deliberate approach to regulations is required. Consumer Watchdog calls on NHTSA to continue to put safety first as you update your automated vehicle policy.”

Read NHTSA’s “Preliminary Statement of Policy Concerning Automated Vehicles” here:

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Published by John M. Simpson

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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