Consumer Safety Group Calls for Federal Regulation of Self-Driving Cars

Center for Auto Safety says government rules could determine whether consumers are willing to give self-driving vehicles a shot.

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The Center for Auto Safety is calling for government oversight of automated vehicles, warning that another fatality— like one in Florida last year involving a Tesla—could set back public acceptance of self-driving technology by decades. 

While no fully autonomous vehicles are currently available to consumers, Tesla and other manufacturers have produced cars with varying levels of self-driving capabilities. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration earlier this year published a voluntary policy on automated driving systems and has since indicated that it will continue on a self-regulatory route for self-driving cars when it updates its policy next year. 

The approach allowing the industry to regulate itself could further harm consumer perceptions of automated vehicles, according to the non-profit consumer group. 

"There may never be a more critical moment in the development of the self-driving car technology in terms of consumer acceptance," said Jason Levine, the center's executive director, in prepared remarks before the NHTSA at the Department of Transportation Monday. 

While Levine said that backers of self-driving technology tout it as having the potential to reduce vehicle-related fatalities, surveys suggest a majority of Americans "are afraid to ride in a driverless car."

Those fears were reinforced, Levine said, by the death in May of 2016 of the driver of a Tesla Model S electric sedan. The accident occurred when the car was in self-driving mode, and the NTSB found the car's autopilot system lacked safeguards to ensure drivers used it properly.

Automated emergency braking and forward collision warning should be mandated features in the cars, according to Levine's group, which is also proposing autonomous vehicle manufacturers be made to submit reports on their technology, and that the information is made available to the NHTSA, researchers and the public.