Auto safety advocates want autonomous tech off the road

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Updated Oct 27, 2016
A demonstration of ZF’s Highway Driver Assist — an autonomous system that enables the truck to pilot itself in on-highway driving.A demonstration of ZF’s Highway Driver Assist — an autonomous system that enables the truck to pilot itself in on-highway driving.

In the wake news involving a traffic fatality when a Tesla in Autopilot mode collided with a semi trailer earlier this year, a coalition of auto safety advocates Wednesday called on President Barack Obama to stop what they called his “administration’s undue haste to get autonomous vehicle technology to the road” until enforceable safety standards are in place.

In a letter to Obama signed by Joan Claybrook, President Emeritus of Public Citizen and Former NHTSA Administrator; Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety; Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Safety and Reliability; and John M. Simpson, Privacy Project Director for Consumer Watchdog, the group also called for the administration’s autonomous vehicle guidance to be withheld, at least until a full investigation of the Tesla crash is completed.

The letter was sent as the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) prepare to issue as early as next Tuesday new guidance on autonomous vehicle technologies.

“[DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark R. Rosekind] have apparently fallen victim to the hype of the developers of self-driving cars at the expense of public safety,” the letter reads. “We call on you to halt the implementation of a self-driving vehicle policy until adequate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards covering autonomous technologies are implemented through a public rulemaking process.”

The letter further calls on NHTSA to test data from other developers of autonomous technologies, and start a formal rule-making process that results in enforceable rules covering autonomous technology.

“According to Tesla, the vehicle was apparently unable to sense a white tractor-trailer truck against the bright sky as it made a left turn in front of the car,” the letter says. “Autopilot technology that cannot sense a white truck in its path, and that fails to brake when a collision is imminent, has no place on the public roads.”

“Tesla wants to have it both ways, hyping the image of Autopilot as self-sufficient, but walking back any promise of safety by saying drivers must pay attention all the time. The result of this disconnect between marketing and reality was the fatal crash in Florida, as well as other non-fatal Tesla autopilot crashes that have now come to light. By releasing Autopilot prematurely in Beta mode, Tesla is unconscionably using our public highways as a test lab and its customers as human guinea pigs.”

The advocate group called on Tesla to disable Autopilot until it can be proven safe.

Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected]