Driverless Cars not ready for roads

Robot Cars


Consumer Watchdog is working to thwart the self-serving hype of the developers of robot cars who are prematurely rushing to use the public as their guinea pigs and our public highways as their private laboratories and deploy the technology before it is ready to be used safely.  Our policy advocates have worked to promote necessary safety protecting laws and regulations at both the national and state levels and have confronted robot car makers directly and in the court of public opinion to help ensure they are held accountable so the cars are not rushed prematurely to market.

Underlying our efforts are five critical principles for self-driving cars that we believe car manufacturers and insurance companies must accept if the vehicles are to be developed safely and in accordance with our social values, ethical mores and the rule of law. 

1.   Human values not robot values must rule.  This is to say that rules of common law and carefully crafted jurisprudence must govern their development and there should be no preemption of state law. Carmakers must accept responsibility for failure in their technology.

2.   65% of the public says it does not feel safe in fully automated cars – so cars must be developed to allow for human controls.

3.   The development must be rolled out slowly, carefully and in a public and transparent process, not be behind closed doors.

4.     Carmakers should accept legal responsibility when their technologies fail and should not foist the responsibility onto the individual, as Tesla has recently tried to do with its Autopilot function.

5.  Carmakers must be completely transparent about how they intend to program their robot technology to make any ethical decisions.  For example, will the self-driving robot technology give priority to protecting the lives of vehicle occupants or of pedestrians?

Here are some recent highlights of our ongoing campaign:

  • We conducted independent research on the performance of autonomous vehicle technology based on the 2017 California DMV Disengagement Reports. 
  • We told the U.S. Senate about our findings, which showed that the technology is not ready for public roads despite the misleading media campaigns led by autonomous vehicle manufacturers. 
  • We wrote public comments to NHTSA, calling upon the federal agency to collect more data before paving the road for unregulated robot cars. NHTSA intends to “remove regulatory barriers” for robot cars and our comments served as a wake-up call about the safety and economic hazards these new technologies would pose to the public. We provided NHTSA with a comprehensive plan on how to move forward with their research in light of our findings. 
  • Our analysis of the risks associated with these technologies were unfortunately confirmed recently when a self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian in Arizona. In the wake of the first death caused by a robot car, we called for a national moratorium on robot car testing. 
  • We joined a broad coalition calling on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to delay consideration of the AV START Act (S. 1885) until the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) completes its investigations of the Tempe robot car crash in addition to the California crash involving a Tesla and a parked fire truck in January 2018. 
  • We joined a broad coalition representing public health and safety professionals, bicyclists, pedestrians, smart growth advocates, consumers, environmentalists, law enforcement, first responders, and individuals with disabilities in calling on the U.S. Department of Transportation to fulfill its legal obligation to ensure effective oversight for the development and deployment of autonomous vehicles.

Our efforts have had a major impact in California. The Department of Motor Vehicle’s autonomous vehicle reporting requirements, driven by Consumer Watchdog’s push to make crash reporting and disengagement reports public, helped the public understand the short comings of robot car technology.

With the release of the 2017 reports, a detailed Consumer Watchdog analysis found that data from the companies testing robot cars on the state’s public roads show the technology is not safe unless it is monitored by a human behind a steering wheel who can take control. Despite the self-serving hype of the manufacturers, robot technology simply isn’t ready for our roads without hands-on, behind-the-wheel engagement and supervision by a human driver, the Consumer Watchdog Analysis found.  Read the news release about the study here:

Our critique continued a multi-faceted approach, highlighting ethical issues, opposition to ‘voluntary safety standards, privacy, greater transparency and conflicts of interest by former regulators.  Here is a link to an op-ed articulating many of concerns that appeared recently in the San- Diego Union: article was circulated to U.S. Senate staffers. Here is another op-ed that appeared in the Sacramento Bee:


Robo car


The conflict-of-interest concern was particularly acute with the development of new self-development of new regulations in California. The proposed regulations language proposed by GM Chief Counsel and Policy Director Paul Hemmersbaugh that could have let self-driving car automakers escape liability for crashes and shift the burden to consumers.  Hemmersbaugh had been NHTSA’s counsel before leaving the regulator to join GM.  

Consumer Watchdog, the Consumer Attorneys of California, the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America (ACIC) and the American Insurance Association (AIA), who are rarely on the same page, all agreed that the manufacturer friendly proposal offered by General Motors was an overreach of DMV’s authority. They ultimately prevailed and the language was removed. Read the news release here:

Working jointly with the Center for Auto Safety we called first on the Federal Trade Commission and then to the California Department of Motor Vehicles to end Tesla’s deceptive marketing practices which lead people to believe its “Autopilot” feature is more capable of self-driving than is actually the case. Read the news release about the DMV filing here:

Here is television coverage of the Tesla complaint:

We filed comments with DMV, NHTSA and sent letters to the U.S. Senate. Links to releases about some of those efforts are here:


Robo cr 2


Realizing that data privacy is already a huge concern with modern vehicles, let alone autonomous ones, Consumer Watchdog joined Privacy International in releasing a report calling on car rental firms to protect driver data privacy.  Read a news release here:

Consumer Watchdog continued to work witha broad coalition calling on the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to delay consideration of the AV START Act (S. 1885) unless it is amended to protect safety.  Thanks in part to our efforts, the Senate legislation is still being blocked by a number of senators, led byCalifornia’s Senator Dianne Feinstein, who has used Consumer Watchdog’s research to build opposition to the rapid deployment of the technology. After a preliminary report from the NTSB into the fatal robot car crash in Tempe Ariz., Consumer Watchdog said robot car developers cannot be trusted to safely test their cars on public roads without strong government regulation and oversight. Read news release here:

We underscored the need to put the brakes on the AV START Act, with a poll conducted for us in four states that found overwhelming public skepticism about autonomous vehicles.  Read a news release about the poll here:

The tragic incident resulting in the death of a pedestrian struck by an Uber robot car was caught on video looking at the road and looking at the safety driver.  That video, released by the Tempe police department is available here: Using that video, Consumer Watchdog has produced an education video urging regulators to “Push the Brakes on Driverless Cars”:

 Another video, “The Tesla Crash Call Out,” demonstrates how Elon Musk hypes Autopilot leading people to believe it is capable of self-driving when it is not. It was cited during our news conference about our complaints to the DMV and FTC.