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Consumers Union to Testify at House Hearing on Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars have great safety potential, but sensible standards are needed to protect consumers, CU says

June 27, 2017

WASHINGTON, D.C. — William Wallace, policy analyst for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports, will testify today at a U.S. House hearing on self-driving vehicles.

The hearing comes as the number of traffic deaths in the U.S. is on the rise, and self-driving cars are being touted as a powerful solution. Ninety-four percent of these fatalities are due to human driving error, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Self-driving vehicles could largely eliminate driver errors, and some believe crashes would drop dramatically. These vehicles may also offer more mobility options to seniors, the disabled, and other consumers. However, this evolving technology, which represents the single biggest change in the relationship between cars and their passengers since the invention of the motor vehicle itself, has raised many questions about safety and the kinds of standards that are needed to protect consumers.

Wallace said, “We see great safety potential in self-driving cars, but that promise should be realized by following a smart, safe path. Policymakers should set a clear expectation that highly automated vehicles must significantly improve safety, in addition to providing mobility and other benefits to the public. We urge Congress to embrace both technological innovation and accountability. Lawmakers should require sensible, enforceable, evidence-based measures to protect consumers against new hazards that may emerge.”

Today’s hearing will be held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection. Lawmakers will examine 14 draft bills, and they will hear from Consumers Union and other stakeholders about how these proposals would impact the testing and deployment of self-driving vehicles under NHTSA’s current safety framework.

Wallace will outline six recommendations from Consumers Union to members of the subcommittee:

• Exemptions from federal safety standards for highly automated vehicles should be limited to equipment required exclusively for the driving task which may be fully replaced by automation, and granted only if backed by evidence provided through a publicly defined National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) process. No exemptions should be given for crashworthiness or occupant protection aspects of safety standards under these proposals.

• NHTSA and auto engineers classify driving automation on levels of 0 through 5, ranging from complete driver control to full autonomy. Some vehicles currently offer systems at Level 2, and Level 3 is not far behind. Additional measures should be in place in vehicles that have Level 2 or 3 automation, which can give consumers a dangerously false sense of security, increasing the risk of driver inattention. Human drivers have a limited ability to return to the task of monitoring and driving after having disengaged their attention.

• Automakers should make their safety-related data public and share it with regulators in a timely manner.

• Preemption of state and local authority should be narrowly tailored and limited to areas where NHTSA has set strong federal standards.

• The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and NHTSA should be given the authority to jointly set baseline, enforceable privacy and security standards.

• NHTSA’s capabilities should be strengthened significantly through increased funding and authority—not just for self-driving cars, but also so it can better save lives and prevent injuries due to chronic problems, like drunk and distracted driving, seatbelt non-use, and automakers’ failure to make the best new safety features standard on all vehicles.

Consumer Reports has a long history of advocating for safer cars and helping consumers make informed choices that help them stay safe on the road, through testing, journalism, survey research, advocacy, and consumer mobilization. CR evaluates safety technologies at its Auto Test Center, where CR experts test some 60 vehicles per year and drive them 900,000 miles annually. Each vehicle is rated for 2,000 break-in miles before formal testing, which includes more than 50 tests using state-of-the-art tools.

The safety features evaluated by CR range from seat belts and the fit of child car seats to driver-assistance technologies, which CR has identified in more than a dozen models for sale in the United States. CR testers take cars that can steer within a lane, adjust speed, and brake automatically and assess them thoroughly. As more features hit the market, CR will carefully evaluate them for safety and report the findings to consumers.

The formal testimony for today’s hearing is available online here.

Contact: David Butler, dbutler@consumer.org, or Kara Kelber, kara.kelber@consumer.org, 202-462-6262.

Consumer Reports is the world’s largest independent product-testing organization. Using its more than 50 labs, auto test center, and survey research center, the nonprofit rates thousands of products and services annually. Founded in 1936, Consumer Reports has over 7 million subscribers to its magazine, website, and other publications. Its policy and mobilization division, Consumers Union, works for health reform, food and product safety, financial reform, and other consumer issues in Washington, D.C., the states, and in the marketplace.