Some traffic safety advocates are waving a yellow flag on a Senate bill concerning the development of autonomous vehicles, saying the measure has been written more to benefit the car industry than consumers.
Representatives of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and other groups on Tuesday accused lawmakers of writing a bill on autonomous vehicles offering few safeguards to the public. They warned the bill would mean little federal oversight of new automated vehicles as they enter the market in larger numbers.
The National Safety Council also has spoken out against the decision by Congress to exclude commercial trucks from the bill’s reach and urged Congress to include data-sharing requirements that would allow the technology to be evaluated and crashes to be documented in a central database.
“These vehicles will be equipped with unproven technologies and sold to unsuspecting consumers,” Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told reporters.
Safety advocates said the AV Start Act — which stands for American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies — would allow manufacturers to sell thousands of vehicles that would be exempt from current safety standards, including those of crashworthiness. Others expressed concern that the bill shields manufacturers from civil liability, fails to address issues such as cybersecurity to keep autonomous vehicles safe from hackers, and preempts states from taking independent regulatory action.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers — which represents several automakers developing autonomous vehicles — issued a statement in response saying there’s nothing in the legislation that diminishes the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) regulatory oversight.
“Given that human error contributes to nine out of ten crashes, taking steps to further advance self-driving technologies right now is critical to enhancing future roadway safety and expanding mobility to under-served populations,” Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman Wade Newton said in an email. “Not taking action now could potentially delay life-saving technologies.”
Safety advocates said they understand the promise of automated vehicles to make transportation safer and more efficient, but worried that Congress is abdicating a role in ensuring its ability to regulate and oversee that development.
“It’s a revolution that’s about to take place,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said. But he also said he hoped to amend the bill to address his concerns about cybersecurity, privacy and consumer information.
Joan Claybrook, a former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said that even with some regulatory oversight, the history of auto manufacturing includes a litany of mistakes, coverups and illegalities that killed or injured millions of people. These include the dangerous history of Ford’s Pinto, Chevrolet’s Corvair, General Motors’ use of a defective ignition switch, Takata’s exploding air bags and — most on point — the May 2016 fatal crash involving a Tesla that was driven on autopilot, the safety advocates said.
“Unfortunately, the public will be the crash test dummies in this dangerous experiment,” Claybrook said.
The bill is to be taken up by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Wednesday.
–This post has been updated to correct the vehicle model to Chevy’s Corvair.
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