NHTSA Accused of Neglecting Duty on Self Driving Cars Due to Premature Deployment

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A number of auto and highway safety watchdogs are criticizing Nation Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) due to the federal regulator’s approach towards autonomous vehicles. According to these safety watchdogs, NHTSA, and its Administrator Mark Rosekind are “inexcusably…rushing full speed ahead” to promote the deployment of self-driving robot car technology instead of developing the required adequate safety standards “crucial to ensuring imperfect technologies do not kill people by being introduced into vehicles before the technology matures.” Essentially a number of critics are charging that NHTSA has become caught up in promoting a race towards autonomous vehicles without first setting forth the necessary framework and preconditions required to increase the odds that development of the technology can be balanced with current safety needs. Hurt in a car accident? Contact a Philadelphia car accident lawyer of The Reiff Law Firm.

The letter was written and signed by a number of high-profile safety advocates. Former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook signed the letter. Other parties joining in the criticism of NHTSA’s approach to self-driving cars also includes the Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, Clarence Ditlow, along with consumer safety advocates Carmen Balber and John M. Simpson.

Letter Blasts NHTSA Approach to Tesla, Google, and Other Autonomous Car Makers

The letter opens by addressing the NHTSA Administrator, Mark Rosekind’s, recent remarks where he claimed that replacing humans with robot ‘drivers’ could eliminate 19 out of 20 accidents on the road.” The authors of the letter doubt this sweeping statement and immediately request the source of the statement. They seem to suggest that it is not clear whether this statement is accurate or if it strays into hyperbole. Furthermore, the authors of the letter also quickly address the fact that, apparently, the recent Tesla Autopilot accident involving a former Navy SEAL “did not give you pause, cause NHTSA to raise a warning flag, bring you to ask Tesla to adjust its software to require drivers’ hands on the wheel while in autopilot mode, or even to rename its ‘autopilot’ to ‘pilot assist’ [at least] until the crash investigation is complete.”

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The authors of the letter correctly point out that the Autopilot system offer by Tesla is imperfect. They write that despite Tesla having the knowledge that its Autopilot feature “could not tell the difference between a white truck and a bright sky or between a big truck and a high mounted road sign.” Despite this fact,  the company released the technology anyway “and turned its customers into human guinea pigs.” The watchdogs further charge that upon learning of this defect NHTSA should have acted as “sober safety regulators” rather than rushing full speed ahead as “giddy advocates of self-driving cars.”

What do the Safety Advocates Suggest for a Path Forward?

The safety advocates are not Luddites and recognize that, at some point in the future, that autonomous driving technologies will probably be able to save many lives. However, this goal can only be accomplished in a prudent manner “thorough testing and a public rulemaking that sets enforceable safety standards. ”Instead, the letter authors claim that NHTSA has presented a “false dichotomy” to the public. They state that “The question is not whether autonomous technology must be perfect before it hits the road, but whether safety regulators should allow demonstrably dangerous technology with no minimum safety performance standards in place, to be deployed on American highways.” They write that some autonomous vehicles accidents, like the Tesla crash in Florida, could have been prevented through safety standards.

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They ask that NHTSA and other autonomous vehicle proponents do not “[Exaggerate] safety advocates safety concerns claiming they demand “perfection” while [ignoring] deadly defects.” The advocates seem to request a meticulous, step-by-step, science-based approach to setting forth safety standards for systems of this type. This type of approach is not groundbreaking or remarkable and has been used for the deployment emerging auto safety technologies including seat belts, airbags, and other important features. Essentially, the safety advocates are asking NHTSA to set forth certain ground rules for autonomous systems to ensure that glaring safety defects – such as a camera that cannot distinguish between the sky and the side of a truck – do not make it to market and onto our roads and highways. Only time will tell whether officials from NHTSA heed these words of warning or whether the current approach to the issue will continue.

If you were recently involved in a car accident, contact an Easton, Pennsylvania car accident lawyer of The Reiff Law Firm for help.

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