Product Safety

DC’s Plan to Unleash Unregulated Autonomous Vehicles for Testing is a Potentially Dangerous Proposition

The Specific Details of the DC/Ford AV Experiment are Unknown, Posing Serious Safety Concerns

Washington, D.C. – Yesterday, the DC Council’s Committee on Transportation and the Environment held a hearing on Ford Motor Company’s plan to introduce autonomous vehicles (AVs) onto the streets of the nation’s capital. At the hearing consumer and auto safety advocates raised concerns on the privacy, cybersecurity protections, government oversight, and data transparency that must be addressed prior to subjecting DC residents to AV experimentation.

With DC set to approve Ford’s AV program rollout, Jack Gillis, CFA’s Executive Director and author of The Car Book acknowledged the potential of AVs, but expressed concern about the experiment:  “Autonomous vehicles have the potential to be a technological vaccine that could dramatically reduce the tragic toll that autos take on our society.  However, like any successful vaccine, AV’s need to be thoroughly tested to specific standards, before they are made available to the public.  The current plan to let the Ford Motor Company use DC’s streets as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles falls woefully short on the protections and oversight needed to ensure the safe introduction of the autonomous vehicle.”

Long time auto safety advocate, Jackie Gillan, President Emeritus of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, appearing as a public representative said, “I do not fear new technology, but I do fear being a guinea pig for testing vehicles equipped with unproven experimental technology.”

Gillis testified that the lack of details on this experimental program should raise numerous red flags for the Council, especially considering the results of similar programs in other cities that hastily allowed autonomous vehicle testing on their public streets. He explained the top three actions the DC Council should take in order to protect DC residents and visitors who all use the Districts roads:

First, there needs to be transparency in the details of the program and its specific implementation. The public and other stakeholders must be involved in the execution process and review of all aspects of the planned AV testing protocols. Any adverse impacts that arise from the testing must be publically disclosed and available for independent public review.

Secondly, the council needs to ensure that there are essential cybersecurity protections to protect both the vehicle and the passengers. With hacking becoming more and more commonplace, and the previously documented ability for a miscreant to take control of a vehicle, Ford must demonstrate to the District and its public that it will be able to prevent such activity.  One can only imagine the tragic consequences of a hacker taking control of an AV in the nation’s capital. In addition, should citizens be taking part in this experiment, the privacy of their personal data and activities must be protected.

Lastly, there needs to be strict protocols for identifying and evaluating adverse impacts on public safety by making all of the operational data associated with the experiment available for independent technical review.  If Ford wants to use the public’s streets for their experiment, then they must make all of their AV data available to that same public.  An independent review is common practice in the development of any vaccine and autonomous vehicles should be treated no differently.  Not only should there be independent review of the massive amounts of data collected and processed by the AV, but there should be an independent review of the experiment itself.  A board of independent experts is imperative in view of the fact that few government officials or members of the public have the ability to oversee what is likely one of the most complex products ever introduced in the history of the world.

These actions are even more critical considering the highly complex nature of autonomous vehicles. In giving permission to Ford to test vehicles on DC streets, Gillis reminded the committee that Ford has had over 8 million “standard” vehicles recalled in just the past 4 years, which is about the same as the number of vehicles that they sold during that same time period.

“What is particularly problematic, is that the DC government is authorizing the introduction of an unregulated vehicle, as the Federal government has refused to establish standards for AV performance,” said Gillan

“While AV’s will undoubtedly be a technological vaccine that will make driving safer and help DC move towards its Vision Zero goal, the lack of details in the pilot program and overall lack of regulation by either DC or the federal government necessitate and thoughtful and explicit rollout of autonomous vehicles nationwide and in the nation’s capital,” concluded Gillis.

Contact: Jack Gillis, 202-939-1018