A visitor looks at a self-driving car by Google. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Jason Levine is executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Self-driving cars potentially represent the greatest step toward automotive and pedestrian safety since universal installation of the air bag. Yet the American people remain reticent about this leap into the future.

Seventy-eight percent of respondents to an AAA survey said they would not want to ride in a self-driving car. Only 13 percent of those surveyed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology agreed they would be comfortable with vehicle "features that completely relieve the driver of all control for the entire drive."

Clearly, we are not a nation of Luddites. We Americans adopted the car like no others, won the race to the moon, love our smartphones and smart homes, and are accustomed to seeing self-driving or flying cars in almost every movie set in the future. But to ignore crowdsourced gut feelings around a revolutionary change to a building block of our current societal topography is to fail to meet consumers where they are.

As it turns out, that unsettled feeling in Americans’ stomachs is not actually about the future. It’s about the past.

Serious questions emerge when lawmakers provide exemptions from Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards,


to an industry that has a history of fighting safety features. And everyone’s Spidey-sense should be tingling when that same industry will not make crash data on self-driving cars available to the public.

The auto industry has never been shy about rolling out new products that maximize profits, but it has too often dawdled in handling defects or design flaws. Every delayed disclosure and incomplete recall increases the potential of incidents leading to loss of lives and limbs. If past is prologue, when it comes to category-changing auto technology, we should all be skeptical.

Sadly, the relevant expert safety agency, the Transportation Department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has a spotty history when it comes to putting the interests of the American people first. Over the years, safety advocates (including my own organization) have routinely taken the NHTSA to court to force it to do its job. This has included — but is certainly not limited to — forcing auto manufacturers to issue complete recalls and sufficient remedies and requiring companies to implement widely available safety technology, such as seat belts, air bags, electronic stability control, roof crush protection and automatic emergency brakes.

Today, air bags have saved tens of thousands of lives and are in every new car, minivan, light truck and SUV. But their story perfectly encapsulates how a lack of leadership by the government and too keen a focus on profits can derail progress. Widespread adoption of air bags took more than 30 years. The auto industry fought at too many points in the process, and too often the NHTSA and other officials went along for the ride.

Even today, when no one would think of purchasing a new car for their child, themselves, or their parents without air bags, we are in the midst of an enormous recall of Takata air bags, which were installed in millions of vehicles in the United States even though Takata was allegedly aware of a dangerous safety defect.

Congress's current approach would delegate to the NHTSA the responsibility of writing policies for autonomous vehicles, particularly on safety, cybersecurity, consumer privacy and disclosure of crash data. Yet, the NHTSA does not seem to want the job, recently weakening an existing set of voluntary guidelines on autonomous vehicles. Unfortunately, this should not be a surprise, as the NHTSA has not bothered to write mandatory rules or enforce the law on much simpler issues. It has repeatedly delayed requiring manufacturers to install rearview cameras to prevent children from being hit as a car backs up. And it has yet to implement rules requiring back-seat safety-belt warnings.

Since the NHTSA cannot — or will not — take on these less complicated challenges, it is hard to believe that it would ever stand up, say, to an industry objecting to notifying the public of cybersecurity breaches — even if the breach could happen to a car without a steering wheel or brake pedals.

Nevertheless, technology companies such as Google and Tesla love autonomous vehicles. Ride-sharing pioneers such as Uber and Lyft are on board, and the auto industry has invested billions in the concept. Progress marches on. Embracing its benefits can be more useful than simply objecting to change for the sake of the status quo.

The cars of tomorrow can — and should — be the safest, highest quality and most environmentally friendly vehicles ever developed. One can understand the economic potential for such cars, but Americans are right to be concerned about a lack of oversight and absence of corporate caution in the rush to be first. Let’s all slow down and arrive alive.