- A coalition of more than two dozen signatories has sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao requesting increased national oversight of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Signatories include leaders of the Vision Zero Network, American Public Health Association, Consumer Federation of America and National Center for Bicycling & Walking.
- The group requests that the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), its agency with oversight, issue minimum performance standards for AVs, provide the public with information about AVs' abilities and limitations and strictly enforce the current legal measures that require the auto industry to report problems with AVs.
- The letter accuses USDOT and NHTSA of being "detached spectators instead of engaged safety regulators during one of the most crucial and critical times in the history of automobiles."
Coincidentally, the coalition's request came the same day that news circulated of a fatal pedestrian collision that brought to a halt all of Uber's AV testing. A woman died from injuries she sustained when she was hit by an AV, which had a safety driver on board, as she was crossing the street outside of a crosswalk in Tempe, AZ. Although the coalition hasn't referenced the Arizona fatality, the incident underscores the group's message that AVs can be dangerous and should be regulated.
Traffic safety is a tricky topic on which to request action because different aspects are governed at the federal, state and local levels. Even more tricky is a request to devise regulations for a manufacturing sector — especially an emerging one — without complaints of government over-reach.
However, federal safety regulations do already exist for automobiles. NHTSA issues Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that cover vehicle safety regulations for features such as air brakes, tires and child restraints. NHTSA should be well within its power to issue safety regulations for self-driving systems as well.
The coalition pressed the DOT and NHTSA to take action "[r]egardless of Congressional activity on AVs," referencing the legislation currently stalled in Congress that is intended to speed up AV development and testing. Earlier this month, more than 100 companies urged the Senate to pass the bill, known as the AV START Act, by Memorial Day. The U.S. House of Representatives passed the SELF DRIVE Act on a voice vote last year.
The coalition is specifically calling for federal electronics requirements and standards for testing how well AVs can sense objects around them. It is also calling on the DOT to get strong on enforcement, especially with the auto industry's reporting of potential AV issues. It notes that the automobile industry has a number of failures on the public safety front and on reporting known issues, such as with exploding airbags and faulty ignition switches. The letter to Chao calls for bona fide regulations as opposed to what it calls "voluntary guidelines" that do not hold real consequences for those in the industry.
Regulation has been a well anticipated element of the AV development process. Advocates encourage the government to get in front of the issue due to the rapid evolution of the industry, rather than falling behind and finding it more difficult to put in place and enforce measures down the road.