Product Safety

Senate Needs to Put the Brakes on the AV START Act

Statement of Jack Gillis, CFA Director of Public Affairs and author of The Car Book, on the AV START Act Hearing

Washington, D.C. – Autonomous vehicles have the extraordinary potential to be the technological vaccine that will dramatically reduce the death and injury currently associated with motor vehicles.  However, like any other “vaccine”, there needs to be significant oversight, standards and regulations established to insure that the true potential of the AV is reached. That’s why the Consumer Federation of America is asking the Senate to put the brakes on the AV Start Act. The Consumer Federation of America believes that Congress needs to heed the well-known highway safety sign, “Slow Down and Save Lives.”

While we are confident that the auto and technology companies are on the cusp of nearly unimaginable advancements in safety, doing so without specific oversight and standards could, ironically, itself be a safety hazard.  Congress must establish a safe roadmap to the successful introduction of AVs in order to fulfill their potential for facilitating dramatic reduction in the tragic toll that automobiles take on America’s public health.

Rather than give the industry “carte blanche” to fill the roads with untested, unregulated vehicles, Congress must address the following:

The danger of introducing hundreds of thousands of vehicles into the market prior to establishing specific performance standards for this extraordinarily complex technology. In its investigation of the Tesla crash, the National Transportation Safety Board found significant problems with the marketing, performance and education associated with Tesla’s preliminary efforts at automation. As vehicle automation becomes even more sophisticated, these types of problems will increase exponentially. While the complexity of today’s vehicles is far less than those of the future, during the past three years, three times as many vehicles have been recalled as even sold. While these recalls have mainly been mechanically related, the combination of sophisticated computerization with mechanical safety features will only increase the potential for problems. As these new technologies are introduced, we need more, not less, regulatory oversight.

The elimination of occupant safety requirements in autonomous vehicles will deny passengers critically important protections in inevitable accidents. For the foreseeable future, one of the biggest challenges facing consumers will be the mix of AVs (autonomous vehicles) with HDs (human drivers). As each of these operating systems try to work together, there will be accidents. Denying the occupants of AVs the protections offered by current federal safety requirements will subject them to needless injury and death.

The need for public access to the data associated with AV operations, especially in accident and accident avoidance situations. As this technology is rolled out, independent researchers and government regulators need unbiased access to performance data. There will be a tremendous amount of data available that can be used to critically evaluate the vehicle’s performance. Locking this data up behind corporate doors will deny the public with the ability to determine the real world performance of AVs. Requiring public disclosure of the data associated with AV operations, with privacy protections, must be a priority. Absolutely essential is a requirement that manufacturers must report all crashes to NHTSA.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) lack of capacity to properly oversee and regulate this technology. The AV is likely one of the most technologically sophisticated products in recent history. Congress needs to significantly increase NHTSA’s funding and require the establishment of a specialized AV department, with highly trained and experienced staff, to oversee AV standards. Without such a department, it is too easy for the car and technology companies to forge ahead with unregulated products using the excuse that NHTSA simply can’t understand or evaluate these products. Government ignorance is a recipe for tragic consequences—consequences that, ironically, will hamper the development of this life-saving technology. Even a small number of tragedies could negatively influence the public support needed to bring the best of this technology forward.

Jack Gillis, 202-737-0766