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Consumer Watchdog Warns Bill Pre-empting State Robot Car Laws Approved by House Commerce Committee Would Leave Dangerous Regulatory Void Threatening Highway Safety

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John M. Simpson

SANTA MONICA, CA -- Consumer Watchdog warned that a bill approved today by the House Commerce Committee that would pre-empt state autonomous vehicle safety regulations would leave a regulatory void without meaningful safety protections.

“Pre-empting the states’ ability to fill the gap left by federal inaction on safety standards leaves us at the mercy of manufacturers as they use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all,” said John M. Simpson, Consumer Watchdog Privacy Project Director.

California’s initial autonomous vehicle testing regulations, for example, are working, Simpson said, noting that 36 companies have obtained permits to test robot cars on our roads. Crash reports and disengagement reports must be filed, so the public knows what’s happening around them, he noted

There are no federal autonomous vehicle safety standards, only voluntary guidelines, Consumer Watchdog noted. 

“Instead of offering meaningful safety protections,” Simpson said, “federal efforts appear to be aimed at thwarting those who might act.”

The nonprofit nonpartisan public interest group stressed that regulations covering jurisdiction over licensing; enacting and enforcing traffic laws and regulations; and regulating vehicle insurance and liability must remain with the states.

“Lost in the hyperbole over robot cars is a realistic assessment of the likely costs to both consumers and taxpayers particularly over the coming decades, when robot cars and human drivers will share a ‘hybrid highway,’” said Simpson.

Consumer Watchdog also called on Congress to increase funding for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration so it has the resources necessary to enact safety performance standards and regulate self-driving robot cars.

Last month Consumer Watchdog issued a report warning that robot cars operating without mandatory safety, security, privacy and ethical standards will pose unprecedented risks to the American public. Read the report, Self-Driving Vehicles: The Threat to Consumers, here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/sites/default/files/resources/self_driving_consumer_threat_report.pdf

In September during the Obama Administration NHTSA issued its automated vehicle policy, which relies on a 15-point voluntary safety assessment.  Last month Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said her department was reviewing that policy and would issue its revised policy guidelines within a few months. No voluntary safety assessments have been filed.

Consumer Watchdog noted that when the federal government finally enacts Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FVMSS) covering autonomous vehicles, they will under current law pre-empt state safety regulations. 

“There will be no ‘patch-work’ of competing and possibly contradictory regulations that some warn about,” said Simpson. “NHTSA just needs to do its job and protect the public’s safety.”

In formal written testimony to the Subcommittee on Digital Commerce and Consumer Protection in June Consumer Watchdog said:

“We call on you to require the development of enforceable federal safety performance standards. Responsible regulation goes hand-in-hand with innovation. Voluntary ‘standards’ in the auto industry have repeatedly been proven to be weak and insufficient.  Safety must come before the automakers’ bottom lines. Consumer Watchdog calls on you to require NHTSA to enact the necessary regulations to protect the safety of our highways and give the agency the necessary resources to do so.”

Read Consumer Watchdog’s testimony here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/resources/househavstatement062717.pdf

View the Subcommittee hearing here: https://energycommerce.house.gov/hearings-and-votes/hearings/self-driving-vehicle-legislation 

The statement to the House Subcommittee came after Consumer Watchdog’s in depth study, “Self-Driving Vehicles: The Threat to Consumers.”  Read the report here: http://www.consumerwatchdog.org/sites/default/files/resources/self_driving_consumer_threat_report.pdf

The next few years will feature complex interactions between people, computers, cars and public streets and freeways, Consumer Watchdog said.   To deal with the challenge posed by autonomous vehicle technology, Consumer Watchdog believes six principles must be adopted. They are:

1. Protect the civil justice system. The state-based civil justice system – open courts, impartial judges and citizen juries – is fully equipped to handle the determination of legal responsibility as our transportation system evolves over the coming decades. Disputes over who is at fault in a crash involving a self-driving car or truck will require the full power of civil justice system, with its procedural safeguards of an impartial judge, full public transparency, and trial by citizen juries, to investigate and publicly expose the cause of crashes, compensate the victims for deaths, injuries and property damage, punish the wrongdoer, and force manufacturers to make changes in their products to prevent future harm. When their autonomous technologies fail, hardware and software manufacturers must be held strictly liable. Lawmakers should reject legislation to limit or restrict state consumer protection laws. Manufacturers must not be permitted to evade these consumer protections by inserting arbitration clauses, “hold harmless” provisions or other waivers in their contracts. 

2. Enact stronger state consumer protections against insurance company abuses.  According to a 2013 report by the Consumer Federation of America, “California stands out from all other states in having the best insurance regulatory system for protecting consumers.” Enacted by California voters in 1988, California’s insurance reform law provides precisely the stronger protections consumers will require in the era of robot vehicles. The reforms, known as Proposition 103, have protected motorists (along with homeowners, renters, businesses and medical providers) against unjust insurance rates (including product liability insurance rates) and anti-consumer and discriminatory practices. The law’s emphasis on rewarding drivers with lower insurance premiums based on their safety record, their annual mileage, their driving experience, and other rating factors within their control that are “substantially related to the risk of loss,” will be critical in the new automotive era. Proposition 103’s mandate for public disclosure and public participation in regulatory matters are essential components of a system that will be trusted by consumers. 

3. Enact auto safety standards. Private companies cannot be trusted to develop and deploy robot cars and trucks without rules. The federal auto safety agency or other relevant federal agencies, or in their absence, state auto safety agencies, must develop standards for the testing and deployment of the multiple technologies required by robot vehicles. These standards must address safety, security, privacy and the software that determines the robot’s actions in the event of an impending collision and as it makes life and death decisions. They must be enforceable by consumers in courts of law. 

4. Stronger laws are needed to protect consumers’ privacy. The laws have not kept pace with the evolution of technology and the collection and monetization of consumers’ personal data. Hardware and software manufacturers and insurance companies must be barred from utilizing tracking, sensor or communications data, or transferring it to third parties for commercial gain, absent separate written consent (which should not be required as a condition of accessing the services of the vehicle/manufacturer, and which should be revocable by the consumer at any time).  

5. Bar federal interference in state consumer protection laws.  Neither Congress nor federal agencies should be permitted to preempt or override stronger state based civil justice, insurance reform or auto safety laws. 

6. Respect democratic and human values. The sponsors of self-driving vehicles have promoted the myth that machines are infallible in order to justify the wholesale departure from a panoply of norms that form founding principles for the nation, beginning with the rule of law; individual and corporate responsibility; long held legal principles that distinguish between human beings and property; and the transparency of public officials and institutions that is a hallmark of democracy. The strategy of substituting robot values for human values has reached its apotheosis in the determination by robot car company executives to program computers to make life and death decisions, and to keep that decision-making process secret. Lawmakers will need to impose the rule of law and other attributes of American democracy upon the executives of the hardware and software companies that manufacture self-driving cars.

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