Stop the human testing self-driving Tesla Autopilot insanity, says consumer groups

ObamaSpeedKillsConsumer groups are calling for the testing of autonomous technology with live humans on the road using the Tesla Autopilot to be stopped after the death of Joshua Brown. Consumer Reports warns that consumers should never be guinea pigs. Consumer Watchdog is spearheading several efforts including a white truck protest next week, a video, letter to the President from a coaltion of safety advocates and a call on the public to protest via a letter writing campaign.

Consumer Reports

Tesla is only manufacturer that allows drivers to take their hands off the wheel for significant periods of time, and the fatal crash has brought the potential risks into sharp relief, reports Consumer Reports the company that rated the Tesla S as one of the best cars on the market.

“By marketing their feature as ‘Autopilot,’ Tesla gives consumers a false sense of security,” says Laura MacCleery, vice president of consumer policy and mobilization for Consumer Reports. “In the long run, advanced active safety technologies in vehicles could make our roads safer. But today, we’re deeply concerned that consumers are being sold a pile of promises about unproven technology. ‘Autopilot’ can’t actually drive the car, yet it allows consumers to have their hands off the steering wheel for minutes at a time. Tesla should disable automatic steering in its cars until it updates the program to verify that the driver’s hands are on the wheel.”

Companies must commit immediately to name automated features with descriptive—not exaggerated—titles, MacCleery adds, noting that automakers should roll out new features only when they’re certain they are safe.

“Consumers should never be guinea pigs for vehicle safety ‘beta’ programs,” she says. “At the same time, regulators urgently need to step up their oversight of cars with these active safety features. NHTSA should insist on expert, independent third-party testing and certification for these features, and issue mandatory safety standards to ensure that they operate safely.”

White Truck Protest

Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court and auto safety advocates will hold an 11 AM news conference Monday, July 18, in front of a robot car convention, where Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Administrator Mark Rosekind will later be speaking, and are expected to unveil industry-friendly guidance to speed robot car development.

The advocates will unveil the large white truck with “stop” and “speed kills” signs that they will be driving around the convention site to protest the death of the first human driver due to an autopilot function that could not distinguish a white truck from a white sky. They will call upon Foxx and Rosekind not to issue industry-friendly rules, but to create a public process for greater safety. The advocates will also ask Tesla and automakers to take responsibility for their crashes from failed robot driving technology.

Consumer Watchdog has also started a letter writing campaign, requesting citizens to write the President to:

“Stop allowing car makers to use drivers as human guinea pigs in self-driving cars that are not ready for the road.”


Dear Mr. President.

A coalition of auto safety advocates called on President Obama to stop his “administration’s undue haste to get autonomous vehicle technology to the road” until enforceable safety standards are in place.  They said the administration’s autonomous vehicle “guidance” expected next week should not be issued.

“The error in rushing autonomous vehicle technology into cars and onto public highways without enforceable safety rules was underscored by the recent tragic fatal crash of a Tesla Model S in Florida while autopilot was engaged,” the coalition’s letter said.

The letter to Obama was 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 letter was sent as the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are expected this month to issue new “guidance” on autonomous vehicle technologies.  DOT Secretary Anthony Foxx and NHTSA Administrator Mark R. Rosekind are scheduled to speak at an autonomous vehicle symposium in San Francisco Tuesday and many expect the new guidance will be released then.

“Foxx and Rosekind have apparently fallen victim to the hype of the developers of self-driving cars at the expense of public safety,” the letter said. “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.”

Instead, the letter said, the administration’s policies on automated technologies have been “developed in the shadows.”  The letter said:

“NHTSA granted Google the right to consider the robot the ‘driver’ in its autonomous vehicles in an interpretation issued without public notice, let alone the opportunity for public input.  In March, NHTSA announced an agreement with 20 automakers on voluntary standards for automatic emergency braking that were substantially lower than the findings of NHTSA’s own scientists. They also circumvented the public rulemaking process for auto safety features contrary to the law. The rules of the road for automated technologies that would dramatically alter transportation in this country should be developed thoughtfully, in the light of day and with the highest level of transparency and public participation.

“Instead of hastily crafted ‘guidance,’ with inadequate opportunity for the public to comment, NHTSA should gather the facts from Tesla crashes, as well as test data from other developers of autonomous technologies, and start a formal rulemaking process that results in enforceable rules covering autonomous technology.”

Citing the May 7 fatal Tesla crash in Florida the letter said:

“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. ‘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 advocates said Tesla should disable Autopilot until it is proven safe. Noting that both Volvo and Mercedes have said they will accept liability when their self-driving technology is responsible for a crash, the safety advocates called on Tesla make the same pledge if autopilot is offered in the future.  They called for the manufactures of all self- driving cars to take responsibility for crashes cause by their autonomous technologies.

“If the manufacturers, including the high-tech companies, lack the confidence in their products to stand behind them and assume responsibility and liability when the systems they design are in control, and innocent people are injured or killed as a result, those vehicles do not belong on the road,” the letter said.

“The administration should not succumb to Silicon Valley hype about the miracles of autonomous vehicle technology. Autonomous vehicle technologies hold the promise of improving safety. But that promise can only be realized after thorough testing and a public rulemaking process that results in enforceable standards” the letter concluded.  “Allowing the DOT and NHTSA to race ahead and issue untested, unenforceable, voluntary guidelines will only result in more unnecessary tragic injuries and deaths.”