Consumer Group Slams US Senate’s Autonomous Vehicle Bill

A consumer group wants the US Senate to scrap a bill that would streamline regulation for self-driving cars.In a letter sent to senators on February 12, Consumer Watchdog cited so-called disengagement reports by companies testing autonomous cars in California. Those reports showed how often safety drivers had to take over the cars because their self-driving systems failed or didn’t respond correctly to what was going on around them.

Congress shouldn’t allow self-driving cars on the road if they can’t actually drive themselves yet, the group said.

“As it stands, this piece of legislation gives self-driving car manufacturers full authority in deciding whether or not the vehicles they manufacture are prepared to roam the streets without human supervision,” the letter said.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota proposed the AV START Act in November. For now, the bill is stalled because three Senate Democrats, including California’s Dianne Feinstein, have placed holds on it. Safety provisions are key concerns for them.

The bill would update federal vehicle rules for vehicle safety in order to help get self-driving cars on the road. After three years, it would allow the US Department of Transportation to give exemptions for up to 80,000 autonomous vehicles per manufacturer. The bill would require manufacturers to submit safety reports, but based on a voluntary safety assessment proposed by the Department of Transportation.

The act is also intended to keep autonomous car regulation from becoming a mishmash of different state laws while the DoT formulates new federal rules.

Consumer Watchdog says the AV START Act wouldn’t create meaningful regulation or a way to verify that self-driving cars actually work.

The 2017 reports from California, which allow autonomous vehicle testing but require companies to report things like accidents and test-driver interventions, showed all companies that tested cars ran into cases where safety drivers had to take over. Twenty companies filed reports.

Waymo’s cars went furthest without human intervention, going an average of 5,596 miles before a driver had to take over. The automotive arm of Google parent Alphabet reported 63 incidents in 352,545 miles. In testing by most other companies, the cars went only a few hundred miles between incidents.

Drivers had to take over because the cars executed unwanted maneuvers, incorrectly predicted what other drivers and pedestrians would do, didn’t perceive their surroundings correctly, or lost their GPS signals, among other things. In some cases, the self-driving cars appeared headed for a collision when the driver intervened.

California hasn’t yet allowed cars to hit public streets without a safety driver, though it has drafted rules that might allow it. But in Arizona, where regulation is more lax, Waymo has tested truly driverless cars on public roads and plans to launch a driverless ride-hailing service this year.

Cities, states and the federal government are all looking to regulate aspects of autonomous vehicles. On Tuesday, Washington, DC, launched an effort to get self-driving tests going in some parts of the district. Indiana lawmakers are currently considering a state law that would supersede tighter local restrictions. But the DoT and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) traditionally have taken the lead in regulating vehicles in the US.

Congress is trying to catch up with the growth of autonomous cars. Last September, the House of Representatives passed a bill similar to the AV START Act that would let manufacturers deploy as many as 25,000 cars without meeting current safety standards in the first year, rising to 100,000 after three years.

The Trump administration has indicated the president supports the bills.

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

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