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Self-driving cars' fatal attraction

Obama administration officials’ love affair with self-driving cars is so blinding that even a fatal crash – caused when a Tesla in autopilot mode failed to "see" a white truck against a bright sky – has failed to slow their rush to deploy robot cars on public highways.

In fact, speaking at the Automated Vehicle Symposium in San Francisco this week, both Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and National Highway Safety Administration (NHTS) Administrator Mark Rosekind were more supportive of autonomous vehicles than ever.

If Foxx and Rosekind continue to act as if their primary mission is to help the autonomous car industry rush unproven technology to the road, Obama should show them the door.

Tesla’s Elon Musk claims the technology worked as it should and has refused to answer Consumer Watchdog’s call that Tesla accept responsibility for crashes that happen when autopilot is engaged.

That’s why I was at the symposium for Consumer Watchdog, to deliver a cautionary warning on the side of a big white truck that circled the event with signs that read “Tesla, Don’t Hit Me” and “Obama Speed Kills.” 

Some of the reporting on Foxx’s speech suggested he had found a new appreciation of the need for safety standards or testing before robot cars are deployed. But Foxx said he still intended to issue federal guidance on autonomous cars later this summer, with no commitment to a transparent rulemaking process, testing requirements or full public participation to ensure autonomous technology is safe.

Insterad, he boasted that federal officials are busy speeding robot carmakers’ requests for exemptions to existing federal safety standards.

And Administrator Rosekind said: “…no one incident [the Tesla crash] will derail the Department of Transportation and NHTSA from its mission to improve safety on the roads by pursuing new lifesaving technologies.”

That "one incident" cost a veteran his life, and shows the catastrophic potential of placing drivers’ lives in the hands of unproven technology.  

Many speakers at this week’s symposium knew better, acknowledging that it will be decades before fully connected autonomous cars that speak to each other and drive themselves are the only vehicles on the road.

California’s Department of Motor Vehicles has issued a draft of strong safety regulations that would require autonomous cars to have a steering wheel and brake pedal, so humans are capable of taking control when the autonomous technology fails.

Meanwhile, DOT and NHTSA need to slow down and robot carmakers must accept responsibilty when their algorithms are "driving" and crash.