Advocates’ Statement on DC Auto Show’s Missing Driverless Cars

  • January 29, 2018
150 150 Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE 

January 29, 2018

 Contact: Eric Naing 202-408-1711, cell: 217-493-8294, enaing@saferoads.org

 

Statement of Cathy Chase,

President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety,

On the Washington, D.C. Auto Show’s Missing Driverless Cars

Despite all the hype, driverless cars were a no-show at the D.C. Auto Show. This weekend, I went to the convention center thinking I would experience “the latest and greatest” autonomous vehicle (AV) technology about which automakers have been boasting. They have been claiming that AVs, also referred to as driverless cars, are a panacea to motor vehicle crashes. Yet, on display were only a few “concept cars,” which are futuristic and not ready for sales. This was surprising especially considering that just last Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing on AVs in conjunction with the auto show during which some Committee members spoke of the urgency to pass legislation to allow for the immediate sale to the public of hundreds of thousands of AVs with exemptions from current federal motor vehicle safety standards.

If these AVs are ready for prime time, why aren’t the automakers taking advantage to feature them at one of the largest annual auto shows? One would think this would be the perfect opportunity to give a hands-on experience to a public that has been skeptical and skittish about AVs, as revealed in numerous public opinion polls. Just yesterday, Reuters/Ipsos released a public opinion poll revealing two-thirds of Americans are uncomfortable about the idea of riding in self-driving cars. Similarly, a few weeks ago, Advocates shared the results of a CARAVAN public opinion poll which showed that Americans have serious safety concerns about unregulated AVs and want the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to exercise its authority in overseeing them. Yet, there was no AV experience to be had to try to allay these fears. One automaker set up an off-road driving experience for the public to get into a sports utility vehicle with a professional driver and get a personal feel for what it was like when the truck was challenged with off-road obstacles. Another automaker set up a virtual reality experience so one could feel what their concept car of the future will offer. (Unfortunately, they couldn’t get one of two of their virtual reality headsets to work. Perhaps not a strong harbinger.) So, a lack of space or opportunity for auto manufacturers to set up a similar AV experience weren’t issues.

In contrast to the push in the Senate to get the AV START Act (S. 1885) enacted, it is interesting to note that some manufacturers have been stepping away from aggressive predictions of mass AV deployment and are not rushing to be the first to sell AVs for use on public highways. For example, Gill Pratt, chief executive officer of Toyota Research Institute, stated, “It’s a mistake to say that the finish line is coming up very soon. Things are changing rapidly, but this will be a long journey.”[i] Additionally, Bryan Salesky, the Chief Executive Officer of Argo AI, a company partnering with Ford on the development of AV technology, noted, “We’re still very much in the early days of making self-driving cars a reality. Those who think fully self-driving vehicles will be ubiquitous on city streets months from now or even in a few years are not well connected to the state of the art or committed to the safe deployment of the technology. For those of us who have been working on the technology for a long time, we’re going to tell you the issue is still really hard, as the systems are as complex as ever.”[ii] Not infrequently, the first to sell complex new technology that is not fully tested and proven gets a bloody nose. For AVs, death and serious injury for the public in crashes could be the consequences.

The “rush to market” is a critical matter, especially considering that just a couple weeks ago another Tesla Model S reported to have been operating “on Autopilot” had a major crash. That Tesla was reportedly traveling at 65 mph on a California freeway when it came upon a firetruck parked to protect a previous crash scene, a very foreseeable circumstance. Thankfully, no first responders or vehicle occupants were injured. Sadly, the same can’t be said for another driver who died in 2016 after his Tesla Model S crashed into a tractor trailer on a Florida highway while “Autopilot mode” was enabled. Crashes caused by human error need to be addressed, but we shouldn’t rush to replace them with errors by computers, or the humans who programmed them.

Moreover, defective, deadly ignition switches are not a distant memory and more exploding airbags are being recalled nearly every couple of weeks. The old credo that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it comes to mind when thinking about the mass development and deployment of AVs. We urge the Senate to tap the brakes on the AV legislation (AV START Act, S. 1885) and ensure that basic safeguards are in place before unproven driverless cars exempt from federal safety standards are sold to the public. In fact, we provided the Senate Commerce Committee with 12 safety and consumer protection recommendations as well as a more comprehensive statement in preparation for last Wednesday’s hearing, which can be found here.

As I left the auto show, the popular 1980s TV ad about rival hamburger joints rung in my head. Instead of “Where’s the beef?”, I was thinking, “Where’s the AV?”  If auto manufacturers aren’t ready for the public to experience them in the controlled environment of a huge convention center at the auto show, the Senate shouldn’t be racing through legislation to make our public roads their private proving grounds.

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[i]  David Welch and Gabrielle Coppola, Don’t Worry, Petrolheads. Driverless Cars Are Still Years Away, Bloomberg News (Jan, 9, 2018), available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-09/toyota-to-hyundai-say-pump-brakes-on-hopes-of-robo-car-s-arrival

[ii] Bryan Salesky, A Decade after DARPA: Our View on the State of the Art in Self-Driving Cars (Oct. 16, 2017), available at: https://medium.com/self-driven/a-decade-after-darpa-our-view-on-the-state-of-the-art-in-self-driving-cars-3e8698e6afe8