The group Consumer Watchdog said it has joined a broad coalition calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation to fulfill its legal obligation to ensure effective oversight for the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.
In a letter to DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, the 26 signatories to the letter assert:
“The department and its safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), have chosen to be detached spectators instead of engaged safety regulators during one of the most crucial and critical times in the history of automobiles. Unfortunately, inaction and indifference have grave and dangerous consequences for everyone — passengers in driverless cars, other motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and members of the disability community.”
To download a PDF of the letter, click here.
“Our organizations share your view that DOT should not be picking ‘winners or losers’ in the marketplace,” the letter continues. “However, we strongly believe that DOT has a legal responsibility to evaluate and regulate technologies that are ‘safety winners or losers,’ before they even enter the marketplace. This is the most effective and assured approach to prevent unproven and potentially dangerous technologies from being sold to the public and allowed on public streets and highways across the country.”
The coalition’s letter notes that Congress created NHTSA in 1966 because relying solely on market forces to manufacture and sell safe vehicles was a failed approach to addressing the mounting death and injury toll on our highways.
“In 2016, over 53 million cars were subject to a government recall, the highest number in our nation’s history, because market forces failed to put public safety ahead of financial interests. Recent examples include vehicles equipped with exploding Takata airbags, deadly GM ignition switches and polluting VW diesel engines, runaway Toyota vehicles and other serious defects. The same industry that created and purposely hid these safety problems is now seeking and receiving from DOT a free hand to produce and sell vehicles that will contain millions of lines of code, thousands of feet of electrical circuitry and advanced electronics yet meet no minimum federal electronics requirements as is mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration or safety standards for cybersecurity protections. … In short, AV manufacturers will be subject to little, if any, government oversight and accountability as the most radical new and untested vehicles enter our highways since the invention of the passenger motor vehicle.”
Noting that public opinion polls show strong public skepticism about driverless cars, the letter warns:
“The reluctance and hesitation of the public to embrace AVs will not be overcome unless unproven, unreliable and unsafe technologies are kept out of the marketplace. It is incumbent upon DOT to assure the public that only safe and adequately tested vehicles meeting minimum federal performance requirements are sold and operated on our streets and roads. This is no different than DOT’s statutory mandate to protect and safeguard families using other modes of travel including plane, rail, bus, bicycle or walking.”
The letter concludes:
“We urge DOT, under your watch, to encourage and oversee the development and deployment of life-changing and lifesaving motor vehicle technologies by issuing minimum performance standards instead of ‘voluntary guidelines,’ providing consumers with essential information on the capabilities and limitations of autonomous vehicles, and rigorously enforcing current legal mandates for industry to immediately report problems. Regardless of Congressional activity on AVs, DOT’s obligation to carry out its mission of ensuring a safe transportation system must be met. The public expects and deserves no less.”