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Consumer Watchdog Tells California DMV Proposed Robot Car Deployment Rules Are Premature; Group Says Regulations Must Wait For Federal Safety Standards

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John M. Simpson

SANTA MONICA, CA – Regulations proposed by the California Department of Motor Vehicles covering the deployment of robot cars are “premature and irresponsible” Consumer Watchdog told the DMV, saying that they wrongly rely on non-existent federal safety standards.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan group said that the proposed expanded regulations covering testing could be enacted with some amendments to improve public safety, but added that those regulations covering deployment of robot cars for the public should be withheld.

Consumer Watchdog also said it has filed a Public Records Act request with the DMV seeking copies of all communications between the governor and his staff with the department about the proposed self-driving car rules.

“The proposed regulations rely on federal safety standards. There are none. Regulations that rely on a foundation that simply does not exist are little more than a meaningless house of cards,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog’s Privacy Project Director in comments filed with the DMV.

The proposed expanded regulations were the subject of a hearing in Sacramento Tuesday.

Read Consumer Watchdog’s written comments here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/dmvavcomments042417.pdf

“Current California Department of Motor Vehicles regulations covering autonomous vehicles have set the standard for the nation by promoting innovation while protecting the safety of our highways,” Simpson said. “Current AV regulations recognize the importance of safely monitoring testing activities and require a licensed driver behind a steering wheel and pedals, who is capable of taking control of the robot car when necessary.”

Consumer Watchdog said the DMV’s proposed regulations are fundamentally flawed because they rely on the federal government to set enforceable safety standards for autonomous vehicles. However, as the DMV’s Initial Statement of Reasons notes, “NHTSA has not adopted any regulations governing the testing or operation of automated, or self-driving, vehicles on public roads, streets, and highways.”

Consumer Watchdog’ comments continued:

“So, there is no federal safety standard specifically governing autonomous technology and NHTSA’s policy amounts to asking automakers voluntarily to please drop a letter in the mail that says, ‘yes, we thought about these issues.’ The status of federal policy is now even murkier with the Trump Administration’s uncertain approach to the issue. As yet President Trump has not even bothered to nominate a NHTSA administrator.

“Anchoring California’s autonomous vehicle policy to such ephemeral federal policies – actual standards don’t even exist – cannot possibly provide adequate protection for the public. Without Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS) that apply to autonomous vehicles, California must enact its own safety standards. The DMV’s original autonomous vehicle regulations put safety first, while still allowing responsible innovation. It is imperative that the Department maintain those high standards, continuing to put public safety first, as it proposes new regulations.”

The proposed regulations come after two draft versions and several public workshops to discuss them. Consumer Watchdog said the form of the proposed regulations is an improvement from the earlier drafts. Now one article covers testing and a second article governs deployment.

“Despite this important change in the form of the proposed regulations, Consumer Watchdog believes the DMV has fallen victim to the siren song of the robot car developers over the last two years and the substance of the proposed regulations no longer puts the public’s safety first,” the comments said. “The new form of autonomous vehicle regulations, with one article devoted to testing and one to deployment, would allow the department to enact Article 3.7 covering testing while delaying implementation of the deployment rules in Article 3.8 until they are amended to adequately protect public safety, which they currently do not.”

Consumer Watchdog said the new testing regulations offered some improvements over current rules:

-- Definitions would now make it clear that an autonomous test vehicle is one equipped with AV technology with or without a person monitoring it.

-- Test vehicles would not be allowed to carry passengers for a fee.

However, before the regulations are adopted, there are necessary amendments, Consumer Watchdog said. They include:

-- Language requiring a manufacturer show that a municipality had approved testing of a robot car without a steering wheel or test driver on streets in the municipality’s jurisdiction.

-- Language requiring that the self-driving technology that will be tested without a driver who can take control has been shown to operate reasonably safely. Before a manufacturer can apply to receive a permit to test without a driver, the manufacturer should be required to file a disengagement report covering at least one year of testing the technology with a backup human driver.

-- Language requiring that any technical data and video associated with a crash should be provided to the department and posted to the website.

-- Disengagement reports should be more frequent because of the rapidly changing state of autonomous vehicle technology. Disengagement reports should be required on a quarterly basis, rather than merely annually.

Consumer Watchdog added that while enactment of most of the article covering deployment of robot cars is premature and irresponsible, there is one section that should be enacted as soon as possible. That is the section which would prevent manufacturers from using terms to describe a vehicle that would lead people to believe it is autonomous when it is not.

“Tesla’s ‘Autopilot’ has killed two people who likely thought their Level 2 car was more autonomous than was the case,” Simpson said. “This dangerous abuse must stop and companies and their executives must be held accountable.”

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