Consumer Watchdog group wants strict guidelines on autonomous driving

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Updated May 25, 2016
Scania testing semi-autonomous trucks in Japan in 2013.Scania testing semi-autonomous trucks in Japan in 2013.

Consumer Watchdog on Friday called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to require a steering wheel, brake and accelerator in all autonomous vehicles so a human driver can take control of a self-driving vehicle when necessary.

The group asked NHTSA to place these requirements in the guidelines the agency is developing on automated vehicle technology. To-date, all the experimental autonomous truck technologies being tested on the market have included each.

“Deploying a vehicle today without a steering wheel, brake, accelerator and a human driver capable of intervening when something goes wrong is not merely foolhardy.  It is dangerous,” says John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project director. “NHTSA’s autonomous vehicle guidelines must reflect this fact.”

Simpson’s concerns primarily target the self-driving car program piloted by Google, who he claims is pressuring NHTSA to develop a fast-track an approval process for autonomous vehicles that would bypass usual rule-making proceedings and Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

“Google, which logged 424,331 ‘self-driving’ miles over the 15-month reporting period, said a human driver took over 341 times, an average of 22.7 times a month,” Simpson says. “The robot car technology failed 272 times and ceded control to the human driver. The driver felt compelled to intervene and take control 69 times.”

Under California’s self-driving car testing requirements, companies testing autonomous technologies are required to file disengagement reports with detailed explanations when a test driver took control of a vehicle operating in autonomous mode. The reports shows vehicles are not always capable of “seeing” pedestrians, cyclists, traffic lights, low-hanging branches or the proximity of parked cars. The cars also are not capable of reacting to reckless behavior of others on the road quickly enough to avoid the consequences, the reports suggested.

“What the disengagement reports show is that there are many everyday routine traffic situations with which the self-driving robot cars simply can’t cope,” said Simpson. “It’s imperative that a human be behind the wheel capable of taking control when necessary. Self-driving robot cars simply aren’t ready to safely manage too many routine traffic situations without human intervention.”