National Consumers League

NCL: Hands-off approach to autonomous vehicles is ‘dangerous’


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October 2, 2017

Contact: NCL Communications, Cindy Hoang, (202) 207-2832, cindyh@nclnet.org

Washington, DC—In a letter to Congress, the National Consumers League (NCL) is expressing grave concerns about Senate legislation to promote the deployment of HAVs or “Highly Autonomous Vehicles.” The bill — S. 1885, the AV START Act — sponsored by Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chair and Ranking members Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Gary Peters (D-MI), would alter existing consumer protection laws and regulatory authority for auto safety in favor of speeding the rollout of these autonomous vehicles.

NCL’s letter to the Committee outlines concerns that the bill does not adequately protect consumers or ensure that the self-driving cars of the future will be safe. The letter noted that Congress seems willing to allow massive deployment of this new and –in many ways untested -technology with no strong federal or state oversight.

On Wednesday, Oct. 3, NCL Executive Sally Greenberg will participate in a press conference with a coalition of leading safety and consumer advocates, and families of victims of deadly vehicle defects, to call on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to stop and fix this dangerous bill.

NCL notes that this legislation would:

  • Allow untold millions of cars on the market that are exempt from federal safety standards and do not adequately protect occupants in a crash
  • Block states and local highway officials from enforcing their own laws through a sweeping provision – federal preemption – that prevents state and local entities from supervision and regulation of the safe operation of vehicles on their roadways
  • Ignore the auto industry’s long history of introducing dangerous and defective vehicles into the marketplace by taking a largely hands-off approach to the deployment of HAVs, which NCL notes, will undoubtedly have design flaws and be involved in fatal accidents.

NCL’s letter noted the auto industry’s long and unfortunate history of introducing dangerous automotive vehicle designs into the marketplace, including Ford Pinto’s exploding gas tank, the Chevy Corvair collapsing tires, the Ford Explorer tires detreading at high speeds, huge blind zones causing backovers of toddlers, ignition switch defects causing untold deaths, and defective airbags impaling drivers.

The letter sent by NCL on S 1885, the AV START Act,” NCL stated the following additional concerns:

  • The bill has no provisions for a public database – despite requests from consumer advocates - so the public can see impending hazards that will be identified when HAVs are deployed and track communications and responses about AVs between NHTSA and manufacturers. Other federal safety agencies, like the Consumer Product Safety Commission with www.saferproducts.gov  and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, https://data.consumerfinance.gov/dataset/Consumer-Complaints-with-Consumer-Complaint-Narrat/nsyy-je5y, make such information publicly available. 
  • Safety exemptions for vehicle safety are far too numerous. They must be strictly limited in scope and any increases must be controlled based on real-world safety performance.
  • NHTSA must be given imminent hazard authority to protect against potentially catastrophic AV defects and the ability to institute recalls quickly.
  • NHTSA must be given adequate and sufficient resources to properly regulate AV technology and should establish an office dedicated to ensuring oversight and accountability.
  • NHTSA needs to be able to hire experts in automotive software technology who are independent from the industry to oversee the safe deployment of AVs 
  • Consumers should have information about vehicles at point of sale or upon hiring the vehicle through ride sharing services

“While we are excited about the potential for autonomous vehicles to improve mobility and safety, it cannot be done in a vacuum. This is new and untested technology. Now more than ever, in these early stages, we need strong oversight and regulation to track problems and ensure consumers’ lives aren’t jeopardized when the inevitable happens: systems go down, hacking occurs, software malfunctions, crashes happen. Under S. 1885, the AV START Act, the protections aren’t there.  We are calling on Congress to address this problem, to give NHTSA authority to develop a safety net for this critical technology and provide the resources needed to take action quickly,” said NCL Executive Director Sally Greenberg.

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About the National Consumers League

The National Consumers League, founded in 1899, is America's pioneer consumer organization. Our mission is to protect and promote social and economic justice for consumers and workers in the United States and abroad. For more information, visit www.nclnet.org.