AV START Bill Under Fire Following Uber, Tesla Crashes

Recent fatal crashes involving self-driving and highly automated vehicles have renewed calls to add strict standards to a proposed US law that would to free companies to test autonomous cars.

Some lawmakers and safety groups are calling on the US Senate to bolster the AV START Actby adding standards for both driverless and highly automated cars. The bill, proposed last year but stalled by opponents, would exempt thousands of such vehicles from some automotive safety rules.

The House of Representatives has passed a related bill.

On Tuesday, April 4, Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the AV START Act should require that manufacturers’ test data and safety evaluations for automated vehicles be made public and any safety standards in the bill should apply to current models, such as ones made by Tesla, which offer the company’s Autopilot feature that can take over some driving functions. He also said the bill should ensure that drivers can override self-driving systems, Associated Press reported.

After riding in two highly automated vehicles — a Tesla Model 3 with Autopilot and a Cadillac with Super Cruise driver assistance – Blumenthal said the fatal Uber and Tesla crashes last month heightened his concern about the safety of self-driving and highly automated vehicles.

The AV START Act would allow the Department of Transportation to exempt as many as 100,000 autonomous vehicles per manufacturer from federal safety regulations. That number would be phased in over three years. Blumenthal and other senators, along with some consumer groups, have assailed the bill for not doing enough to protect consumers from driverless cars. Late last year, Blumenthal joined with several other Democrats to place a hold on the bill.

The recent crashes have accelerated calls for changes to the bill.

Advocates for Highway Safety, a coalition representing several consumer groups, told the Senate last month it should wait until the Uber accident had been investigated so it can consider the probe’s findings. Consumers Union and Consumer Watchdog have also called for more safety rules in the bill.

Last month’s Tesla crash is another reminder that there are real-world consequences to allowing companies to put self-driving and highly automated vehicles on the road without adequate safety standards, said Peter Kurdock, director of regulatory affairs at Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety.

The organization, a coalition of safety and consumer groups, has also said AV START should come with enforceable standards for sensors, cybersecurity, onboard electronics and other components of self-driving and highly automated cars. It should also include standards for systems that detect whether the driver is paying attention and give alerts if they aren’t, the group says.

Such standards would help ensure the technologies are effective and let consumers know that vehicles from different manufacturers all perform to at least a certain level, Kurdock told The Connected Car.

Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety is hopeful that automated cars will make driving safer and doesn’t want to stop development, Kurdock said. But if prove unsafe as they’re rolled out, the backlash could doom any hope for the ultimate benefit.

“Our biggest concern… is that if we have more of these crashes, folks are simply going to recoil,” he said.

The ideas that Blumenthal discussed on Tuesday haven’t been proposed as amendments to AV START, said a spokesman for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, where Blumenthal is the ranking Democrat. The committee has had and will continue to have discussions about possible changes to the bill, he said.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.

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