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Consumer Reports: Self-driving companies’ education campaigns must be driven by safety, not public relations

New industry coalition launched at CES 2019 to educate consumers and lawmakers about AVs

WASHINGTON, D.C. — As major carmakers, tech companies, and partner groups announced a new initiative on automated vehicle (AV) education, Consumer Reports (CR), the independent, nonprofit member organization, urged the new coalition to take strong actions to demonstrate and be frank about current AV safety. CR also called for the coalition to help reduce confusion about AVs’ capabilities and limitations and companies’ plans to monetize them beyond simply selling vehicles or transportation services. CR has noted previously that self-driving cars have enormous potential to improve safety and mobility, but they must be developed, marketed, and rolled out responsibly, with safety first.

“A large majority of consumers are afraid to ride in self-driving cars, but the solution isn’t for companies to tell people they are safe, it’s to show it, including through third-party data,” said David Friedman, vice president for advocacy at Consumer Reports. “And, when it comes to lower levels of automation, there needs to be a lot more transparency about the fact that people are still responsible for driving.”

Based on a recent AAA study, 73% of Americans are afraid to ride in a fully self-driving car. And based on a recent white paper from MIT, people cannot easily understand different levels of automation, but instead may be able only to differentiate whether they are driving or riding.

“Companies have a responsibility to clear up all the confusing and misleading rhetoric that’s been used to promote the technology,” said William Wallace, senior policy analyst for Consumer Reports. “Far too often, companies and their lobbying groups have overstated the capabilities and understated the limitations of automated driving.

“Safety — not public relations — should come first. We hope the coalition truly will bring factual information to the public ‘without unrealistic hype,’ and we look forward to seeing it live up to this commitment.”

For this initiative to truly improve consumer safety, Consumer Reports urges AV companies to:

 

  • Commit to public, independent, and rigorous assessments of the safety of all automated driving systems currently or soon to be on our roads, including elements such as which speeds, roads, traffic conditions, weather, regions, and interactions they can handle better or worse than humans. These assessments also should provide realistic public time frames for deployment that don’t promise more than they can deliver.

 

  • Acknowledge the clear benefits and support the rapid development and use of sensible government safety standards for AVs, strong enforcement of auto safety laws, and a well-resourced auto safety regulator. These will save lives, promote competition, and help ensure that people can distinguish, buy, and use the best products.

 

  • Make the consumer case for AVs, and disclose plans for profiting from them. Companies should detail the real consumer benefits from fully self-driving cars, how people would benefit in the nearer term from automated safety systems that back up the driver, and how people would maintain meaningful choice and control as consumers in the driverless cars market. Companies also should be transparent about how they will further monetize these vehicles, such as through on-board ads and shopping; the sale or sharing of people’s personal data, including their location; and other revenue sources.

Contact: David Butler, dbutler@consumer.org, 202-462-6262

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Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit membership organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. For 80 years, CR has provided evidence-based product testing and ratings, rigorous research, hard-hitting investigative journalism, public education, and steadfast policy action on behalf of consumers’ interests. Unconstrained by advertising or other commercial influences, CR has exposed landmark public health and safety issues and strives to be a catalyst for pro-consumer changes in the marketplace. From championing responsible auto safety standards, to winning food and water protections, to enhancing healthcare quality, to fighting back against predatory lenders in the financial markets, Consumer Reports has always been on the front lines, raising the voices of consumers.

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