Safety Advocates’ and defect victims’ letter to Senate Commerce Committee on Senate AV Bill

  • October 4, 2017
150 150 Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

October 3, 2017

The Honorable John Thune, Chairman

The Honorable Bill Nelson, Ranking Member

Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation

Washington, DC 20510

Dear Chairman Thune and Ranking Member Nelson:

On behalf of our consumer, public health and safety organizations, we urge you to make needed changes to the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies Act (AV START Act, S. 1885) which is being considered during a mark-up session tomorrow. This bill will establish autonomous vehicle (AV) policies, procedures and consumer protections that could remain in place for decades to come. Without essential changes and additions, this bill puts all road users at risk. The improvements we recommend will not stop or even slow down the development and deployment of AVs which hold the potential to significantly reduce motor vehicle deaths and injuries.  Rather, these are commonsense proposals that will ensure public safety and industry accountability.

Unfortunately, S. 1885, as introduced by Senator John Thune (R-SD) and Senator Gary Peters (D-MI), takes an unnecessary and unacceptable hands-off approach to hands-free driving. The critical need for oversight of self-driving cars is especially clear given the recent National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) hearing on the fatal 2016 Tesla crash which identified serious deficiencies with current AV systems. The NTSB findings and Board Members made clear the numerous problems that were, and remain, in the Tesla Autopilot system. The AV START Act fails to heed these timely warnings.

Moreover, a recent survey conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology revealed considerable public skepticism about AVs.  Only 13 percent of those individuals polled reported that they would be comfortable with vehicle “features that completely relieve the driver of all control for the entire drive.”  Similarly, a September 2016 Kelley Blue Book survey found that nearly 80 percent of respondents believed that people should always have the option to drive themselves.  Furthermore, nearly one in three said they would never buy a Level 5 AV.

Absent meaningful changes, the AV START Act sets up a scenario in which our roads and highways become testing grounds for experimental technologies. Even those who are not in an AV will be sharing the streets with unproven systems.  Since the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was enacted in 1966, Congress has never passed changes to weaken auto safety protections at this scope and magnitude. We urge the Committee to adopt all of these commonsense and reasonable improvements to the AV START Act for the following reasons:

  1. 1885 Provides Sweeping Exemptions to Safety Standards: The bill lacks critical protections for the public. A recent report by the RAND Corporation raises serious issues about the uncontrolled introduction of AVs exempt from safety standards and the need for objective, statistical analysis of actual performance to ensure safe development and deployment.  The AV START Act currently allows three separate and distinct procedures for automakers to avoid critical motor vehicle safety standards.  The bill includes a provision which allows manufacturers to render any device or system inoperable when the vehicle is in the AV mode without even having to apply for an exemption.  This undermines traditional safeguards that prohibit deactivation of critical safety systems such as the airbags. Additionally, within just one year, the bill would rewrite Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) to eliminate references to the human operator in critical safety standards based on a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Center.

Moreover, the bill establishes a process that could result in excessive numbers of wholesale statutory exemptions from vehicle safety standards.  This is completely unwarranted and will allow for hundreds of thousands of vehicles on America’s streets that have been exempted from critical FMVSS, including those that apply to occupant protection and crashworthiness.  The bill permits up to 100,000 vehicles per application to be granted multiple exemptions from federal safety standards in the first three years.  Further, there is no mechanism to ensure that AVs exempted from standards will perform safely once deployed and no requirement for an evaluation of their on-road performance. Without proper oversight, manufacturers could be granted increasing numbers of exemptions for products whose potential hazards may not have been identified.

Essential Data and Public Information About AVs are Needed:   S. 1885 does not give consumers appropriate safety information until an advisory committee has completed its work, which could take years. Even then, the adoption of the recommendations by industry is voluntary. At the NTSB hearing on the 2016 fatal Tesla crash, the Board correctly criticized the lack of adequate consumer information about the capabilities and limitations of Tesla’s AV system.  Manufacturers must be required to provide such information at the point of sale and in the owner’s manual for all new AVs without delay.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) should be required to establish and maintain a public database for all AVs that contains basic but essential data, including the level of automation, exemptions from FMVSS, and the operational design domain, including limitations and capabilities, with which the AV is equipped. Such a database will allow consumers to access appropriate information about their vehicle and also facilitate independent evaluation and research on the safety performance of AVs.

Sufficient Funding for NHTSA is Critical:  The agency must be given additional financial and staff resources in order to meet the growing demands as AVs are deployed in mass numbers. Today, 94 percent of transportation-related fatalities, and 99 percent of transportation injuries, involve motor vehicles on our streets and highways. Yet, NHTSA receives only one percent of the overall U.S. DOT budget.  NHTSA is responsible for the safety of over 321 million Americans who drive or ride in more than 281 million registered motor vehicles. The agency needs sufficient funding and staff to carry out its safety mission.

NHTSA Needs Additional Enforcement Powers:  NHTSA should be given the additional tools of imminent hazard authority to protect against potentially catastrophic defects with AVs and enhanced penalties to deter manufacturers from willfully and knowingly putting defective AVs into the marketplace.

State Preemption is Too Broad:  We support the mission of NHTSA to regulate the design and construction of motor vehicles. However, unless and until NHTSA issues comprehensive standards and regulations to govern AVs, states have every legal right to fill the regulatory vacuum with state developed proposals and solutions to ensure public safety.

Level 2 AVs Should be Subject to Effective Oversight:  The AV START Act does not include Level 2 AVs, like the Tesla Model S that was involved in the 2016 fatal crash.  These partially automated vehicles will likely comprise the majority of the passenger vehicle AV fleet in the early years of deployment. Proper safeguards to curb Tesla-like failures must be in place. At a minimum, the requirement to submit a Safety Evaluation Report (SER) should apply to Level 2 vehicles. Also, purchasers of Level 2 vehicles should receive comprehensive information on the vehicle system.

Cybersecurity Threats Need to be Addressed with a Safety Standard:  The bill does not require a minimum performance standard to ensure cybersecurity protections. This is a serious omission especially in light of recent high-profile cyberattacks, and the special dangers posed by the takeover of an automobile’s controls

Foreseeable Driver Distraction Should be Prevented:  The NTSB Tesla crash investigation underscored the urgent need for minimum performance requirements to ensure driver engagement in AVs that require a human driver. The bill fails to address this readily apparent, safety-critical problem. The bill should require NHTSA to establish a performance standard for driver engagement and re-engagement.

Electronics Standard Needed:  Motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment are powered and run by highly complex electronic systems and will become even more so with the introduction of autonomous driving systems.  Minimum performance requirements are essential to ensure that the electronics that power and operate safety and autonomous driving systems are not compromised.

Autonomous vehicles may, once and for all, be the catalyst for meaningful and lasting reductions in the death and injury toll on our streets and highways.  Realizing these goals can only be achieved if Congress enacts legislation that ensures that AVs are developed and deployed in a safe, sensible and transparent manner. This legislation falls far short of that goal.  We urge you to address these substantial concerns and deficiencies to improve the AV START Act.  We want to work with you to develop legislation that advances AVs as well as public safety.


Jacqueline Gillan, President

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety


Joan Claybrook, Chair

Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and

Former Administrator, NHTSA


Jason Levine, Executive Director

Center for Auto Safety


Jack Gillis, Director of Public Affairs

Consumer Federation of America


Stephen W. Hargarten, M.D., MPH

Society for the Advancement of

Violence and Research


Sally Greenberg, Executive Director

National Consumers League


Laura Christian, Founder

GM Recall Survivors

Melbourne, FL

Birth Mother of Amber Marie Rose,

Killed in GM Ignition Switch Crash


Dominick L. Stokes

Vice President for Legislative Affairs

Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association


Ian Weston, Executive Director

American Trauma Society


Rosemary Shahan, President

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety


Andrew McGuire, Executive Director

Trauma Foundation


Gerri and Jay Gass

Ponte Vedra Beach, FL

Parents of Lara Gass

Killed in a GM Ignition Switch Crash


cc: Members of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation