Chicago Supported for Banning Self-Driving Robotic Autonomous Cars

Consumer Watchdog, today backed a proposed city ordinance that would ban self-driving robot cars from the streets of Chicago unless the federal government enacts enforceable safety standards for autonomous vehicles.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group added that testing autonomous vehicles would be appropriate if adequate safeguards were in place, including a trained human test driver behind a steering wheel and brake pedal.

 In written testimony given to a joint hearing by the City Council’s Committee on Finance and Committee on Transportation & Public Way, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director John M. Simpson said:

“Consumer Watchdog agrees that so long as the federal government fails in its responsibility to protect all drivers, cyclists and pedestrians by setting appropriate Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), the Chicago City Council should ban autonomous vehicles – robot cars – from being generally deployed on your streets.”

“No government authority is more familiar with the conditions and challenges posed by local road conditions and traffic patterns than municipal government.  Chicago knows its unique road conditions and there is no better entity to deal with its challenges than City Council,” Simpson said. “While policymakers in Washington DC should – in fact, must – set nationwide safety standards for autonomous vehicles, they are in no position deal with their deployment on your city’s roads.  Council can best determine areas that pose special dangers, such as school zones and highways under construction; Washington bureaucrats cannot.”

Consumer Watchdog said that with appropriate safeguards and oversight, including full transparency about testing companies’ activities, testing of autonomous vehicles in Chicago could be allowed.

“If self-driving car companies want to use Chicago’s public streets as their private laboratories, then they have a responsibility to be completely transparent about what they are doing and to test according to rules that City Council sets,” Simpson said.

Chicago’s testing regulations should include these provisions, Consumer Watchdog said:

  • A self-driving vehicle being tested must have a permit from the city.
  • The robot car being tested must have a trained test driver, behind a steering wheel and brake pedal capable of assuming control should that become necessary.
  • The testing company should be required to file public reports about any crashes.
  • The testing company should file public “disengagement reports” explaining instances when the robot technology failed and the test driver had to take control.

These provisions are similar to what’s required under California’s current testing regulations, Consumer Watchdog said. The regulations have not proved burdensome, nor hampered innovation; 37 companies have obtained permits from the Department of Motor Vehicles to test their robot vehicles in the state.

Consumer Watchdog said that as Chicago City Council formulates autonomous vehicle regulations, it’s important that the Council understand the current state of autonomous vehicle technology. California’s most recent disengagement reports are an excellent barometer.  Disengagement reports from companies testing robot cars on California’s public roads released last February by the DMV show the technology is not ready to be deployed without human drivers behind a steering wheel who can take control when the self-driving technology fails, Consumer Watchdog said.

For example, the report from Waymo, the new name of Google’s autonomous vehicle unit, demonstrates the shortcomings, the group said. Waymo’s report showed the robot cars had problems dealing with others on the road, construction zones, and correctly perceiving their surroundings. In the past the company has said, for example, that its robot cars had difficulty correctly perceiving overhanging branches. There were also software glitches and times when the test driver took over because the robot car made an unwanted maneuver.

Waymo/Google’s robot cars logged 635,868 miles on California’s roads in self-driving mode during the 2016 reporting period, substantially more than any other company testing in the state.  That compares with 414,331 miles in the 2015 reporting period. Waymo/Google said disengagements declined from 341 to 124, or 0.8 per 1,000 miles compared to 0.2 per 1,000 miles. Most of the disengagements – 112 – came on local streets, not highways or freeways.

View the most recent California disengagement reports here.

“City Council should understand what is happening – or perhaps better said what is not happening – with autonomous vehicle safety regulation at the national level,” Simpson said. “Rather than create the necessary regulations that would protect safety on our highways, Congress is rushing legislation that would leave a regulatory void without meaningful safety protections.”

Consumer Watchdog’s testimony concluded:

Chicago must not succumb to the siren song of the autonomous car developers who are over promising what autonomous vehicle technology can do today.  You should act to protect your citizens and ban the general deployment of autonomous vehicles from Chicago’s streets until enforceable FMVSS covering autonomous vehicles are in place   We call on you to push for the development of enforceable federal safety performance standards.  Consumer Watchdog believes Chicago can safely issue permits and allow testing of autonomous vehicles, so long as there is a test driver who can take over and there is complete transparency about the test programs. Responsible regulation goes hand-in-hand with innovation. Voluntary ‘standards’ in the auto industry have repeatedly been proven to be weak and insufficient.  Safety must come before the automakers’ bottom lines. Consumer Watchdog calls on you to block the deployment of AVs until NHTSA enacts the necessary regulations to protect the safety of our highways and Congress gives the agency the necessary resources to do so.”