Consumer Groups: 'AV START' Act Exempts Autonomous Vehicles From Too Many Safety Regulations

Last week, a bill focusing on autonomous vehicles called the American Vision for Safer Transportation Through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act was introduced in the U.S. Senate and is expected to be merged with the SELF-DRIVE Act, which is a similar bill that passed the U.S. House earlier this month. Consumer advocates worry that these bills remove too many safety regulations that could leave consumers at risk as self-driving cars take the roads.

What AV START Means For Carmakers

The legislation will go into effect 18 months after it passes, and it will allow each carmaker to have 50,000 autonomous vehicles (double what the SELF-DRIVE Act allowed) on the road in the first year. By the third year, the car companies will be allowed to have 100,000 self-driving vehicles on the road. This number may further increase if car makers apply for exemptions from the NHTSA.

Auto makers will not have to include car elements required for human operation, such as a steering wheel. They'll be able to test their self-driving cars on national roads, as long as they are operated by their employees. States will not be able to set their own standards for autonomous vehicles.

What AV START Means For Consumers

Car companies will have to send “safety evaluation reports” to the NHTSA to spell out how safe their vehicles are, according to nine criteria including crash protection, cyber security, and data recording.

The bill will also require companies to have cyber security plans to protect the car occupants in case of a hack. This may not be an issue from day one, but you can imagine that once there are millions of autonomous vehicles on the road that aren’t well protected, malicious hackers and even terrorists could start taking advantage of them.

The bill will require the NHTSA to work with state law enforcement to research the traffic-safety implications for self-driving cars.

Consumer Advocates Warn Of Risks

Consumer advocacy groups such as Consumer Watchdog and Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, warned that removing state-level safety regulations without adding anything in their place at the federal level may put consumers in danger:

“Pre-empting the states’ ability to fill the void left by federal inaction leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director."The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needs do its job and Congress should give the agency the money to do it. The sad reality is that President Trump hasn’t even bothered to nominate a NHTSA administrator,” he added.

According to Simpson, the NHTSA has left it up to the auto makers to report whatever issues their self-driving cars may have, in a completely voluntary manner.

William Wallace, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, also added that although self-driving cars could one day make public roads safer, they could also make the roads more dangerous as car makers get permission to test their autonomous driving systems on public roads.

“Federal law shouldn’t leave consumers as guinea pigs," Wallace said. "We were hopeful that this bill would include much stronger measures to protect consumers against known emerging safety risks. Unfortunately, in the bill’s current form, it doesn’t,” he noted.

Towards Level 5 Autonomous Driving

The new AV START bill doesn’t address concerns that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) raised when it investigated a recent crash involving Tesla’s Autopilot. The NTSB wanted car makers to automatically disable the driving assist technologies on roads where they aren’t supposed to work.

We’re still a long way from achieving Level 5 autonomous driving capabilities in our cars. Level 5 is the only level at which autonomous driving technology is supposed to be advanced enough to work safely on any type of road and any environment. Therefore, this rule would seem to make some sense, if driver-assist technologies of Level 3 and below are to be allowed at all.

Both Ford and Volvo recently announced that they will skip Level 3 for their driver assist solutions, because they believe it would just confuse drivers and cause more accidents.

In its own tests, Ford noticed that its drivers were falling asleep after enabling the driver assist, because in essence they were allowing themselves to be driven by the car and relaxing far more than they should have, even if they knew they needed to pay attention to the road.

“These are trained engineers who are there to observe what’s happening,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s product development chief in an interview. “But it’s human nature that you start trusting the vehicle more and more and that you feel you don’t need to be paying attention.”

Google's Waymo team had also previously discovered that humans can't remain engaged after they leave the control to the car. This means that humans are not capable of taking over the car quickly enough when the driver assist systems fail, which could lead to fatal accidents.

This sort of situation leads to questions about who is liable in case of an accident where a car is in self-driving mode. As most of the federal safety rules are removed, that may make it more difficult to establish the guilty party. Car makers may also be legally covered by their Terms of Services agreements, which may exonerate them from fault if an accident happens while the driver assist mode is on.

Moving Too Fast?

The auto makers are probably right that they can’t develop autonomous vehicles that comply with 50 different sets of regulations. Therefore, it makes sense to have these regulations at the federal level. However, both the House and Senate versions of these bills may have gone too far in the other direction, stripping too many state-level safety regulations that took decades to develop for the protection of consumers, without at least adding adequate safety regulations at the federal level.

The AV START act will go to the Senate committee on October 4, and it's expected to pass the committee without major opposition. After that, the bill will be put up for a vote on the Senate floor.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.